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Nigel Paine

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How to get things done as a learning professional in 2020


I work with many, many companies every year in lots of countries. I always focus on action: what are you going to do when you leave this workshop/seminar/webinar/conference? However, the real conviction and determination on the faces of participants as they leave the room so often turns to head-shaking within a few days of being back in the real world. We never work in abstract environments, we work in the context of tangible places and real people and that is always more difficult and challenging.

When I follow up, the most common reason for inaction, in spite of a fully worked out strategy, is ‘my boss wasn’t interested’ or ‘I was told this is not a priority’.

You can accept that and move on or you can follow my four tips to move forward. It is up to you. And these strategies really work by the way, but you can only prove that by trying them out!

1. Bring evidence

I would never try to convince anyone that a learning culture is a good thing to have without bringing evidence to the table. And in many ways you can drop the terminology and the buzzwords and focus on the evidence itself.

Plenty of organisations build learning cultures without ever using the term or really understanding that this is effectively what they are doing. Their aim, for instance, is to make their organisation more agile and more effective. You need to find the right words that strike the right chords and then present the right evidence that shows that you can deliver. 

You can cite, for example, the enormous shift in Microsoft when it operationalised a growth mindset, and shifted the organisation from a ‘know it all’ culture to a learn it all” culture. London Business School wrote a case study in June 2018 if you want more detail, or you can read Satya Nadella’s book: Hit Refresh.

These changes deliver real business value. It is the increase in profitability, customer satisfaction or market capitalisation that makes this interesting and awakens your boss’s interest. Always try to have the right conversation – not ‘It would be great to have a learning culture’ but ‘if we could galvanise the organisation to be more agile, we would beat the competition and retain more customers’.

If you find it is challenging to work with an entirely new team, or your authority does not stretch that far across the organisation, use the people around you to model the change and run your experiment.

2. Go small scale

I never talk about ‘pilots’ but rather ‘experiments’. And, as in all experiments, they can fail or offer lessons for the next stage of iteration. If the scale is small and contained, it is so much easier to persuade managers that this is worth trying as the consequences are negligible.

When you argue for a small experiment, always admit that it could fail, but it could also point the way forward so you should have a plan to scale up. That might be a second experiment in a different location for example. It is better to prove the concept beyond doubt than rush to scale without having thought it through. 

A sequence is emerging: frame your change in terms of business needs, then be clear what behaviours need to change to deliver that. Work out how a small team or group could take on these new behaviours and get their agreement to proceed.

Only then go and ask for permission to move on this. It is low risk and small cost, but possibly life changing for the organisation. Just the way I am explaining it seems as if it would be hard for anyone to resist!

3. Focus only on what the business or the organisation needs

If you know what changes would impact the organisation and its effectiveness, you have to be able to operationaIise that idea. Bosses need stuff they can use now, not abstract concepts they cannot do anything with.

I use this simple model that comes from Giuseppe Aurrichio at the Barcelona Business School IESE to define what has to happen in practical and actionable ways.

First you have to find the REASON to move forward and that is firmly embedded in the business logic and strategy. Then, target key ROLES that have to change. Noone is going to let you loose on the whole organisation because you have had a good idea!

Then look at the ROUTINES that have to change; what behaviours demonstrate the changes required. What do people actually have to DO differently? Those changes can be relatively small but it is vital that they are applied consistently.

Finally, how are you going to RECOGNISE and celebrate those who demonstrate that changed behaviour and encourage others to follow suit? How are you going to remove the obstacles that prevent that change? And what date will prove that something has happened?

As we head into the new year with renewed drive and motivation, let’s focus on getting things done and making some changes.

4. Start a movement

Take the first steps in an area you can influence or control. If you find it is challenging to work with an entirely new team, or your authority does not stretch that far across the organisation, use the people around you to model the change and run your experiment.

For example, if you want to alter the quality of customer service, and your team is not customer facing, model the change in terms of those internal customers you work with. They can be your ‘customers' and you can measure the changes that occur.

Take a benchmark, make the change and measure the impact in tangible business benefits, such as faster solutions, greater customer satisfaction, problems resolved far quicker than they were previously. It is that data you take to encourage the scaling up.

It is only when you focus on results – and the impact those results could make if they are applied across the organisation – that you will be listened to and you have a chance of getting what you want to happen. Never talk theory. Never be abstract. Always talk in the context and reality of your organisation and where it is today, with the people that you need to convince.

Whatever you come up with it should focus on making your workplace more effective, efficient and successful.

Don’t get disillusioned

These four approaches can be used together or in isolation. I promise you they work. As we head into the new year with renewed drive and motivation, let’s focus on getting things done and making some changes before we get disillusioned about the impossibility of getting anything moving in our organisation.

This is the way to feel empowered, inspired and motivated to go on to bigger and better things.

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