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Making training stick


As part of this month's focus on tips, tools and gadgets, Mark Walsh gives some advice to the community about how to make sure training sticks.
Most training is a waste of time because it doesn't stick. People coming out of the average PowerPoint sedative might remember a few facts for a day or two but quickly their behaviour reverts to what it was before the training. Overcoming this is a challenge I have become somewhat obsessed with and this article is about what I have found works through personal training experience and looking at the best research available.
Training is about change and change is natural, inevitable and also difficult to do consciously without a good practice plan, due to what can be called people's 'homeostatic' tendency – systems and habits that tend to reassert themselves. This may seem like no big deal until you consider how much money is being wasted and how out of integrity most trainers are because of this. I have found that experiential training and recurrent practices are needed to embed learning. Like tennis, driving or speaking French, mastery always involves practice. I have developed a system called PEESMART that works with commitments people make in training to establish behavioural change and shows the crucial factors to be included in training itself. PEESMART brings together numerous theories and much research (e.g. Chip and Dan Heath's books, 59 Seconds, work on addiction recovery, Embodied Leadership, Buddhist traditions, ontological coaching and Ken Wilber's Integral Life Practice).

PEESMART Behavioural Change Training Model

Powerful – Does the training have heartfelt emotional resonance?

If not how can you engage this aspect by connecting your training to what people really care about? E.g. "If you develop your time management skills you will... make more money, see your kids more, break less promises etc" If people's deepest values are involved in training it will be successful. Training must be highly interactive ("tell me and I forget..."), experiential and engage the whole person to stick. Emotions, 'owning learning' and motivation are key.

Envision – Can delegates picture the change the training will produce?

Encourage participants to mentally practice a successful outcome and rehearse overcoming challenges – change starts in the mind. Be intentional. Are there 'bright-spots' where participants are already doing the desired behaviour? Try and 'spread' the success out. To change, people may also have to envision a new way of looking at the world. We live in' our stories and these may need to shift, e.g. from a stress management workshop - "Good girls don't say no, it's rude, I like to be helpful” to, "It's OK to say no" (narrative shift) or "I am not a good girl, I'm a compassionate woman (identity shift) and I choose how I help (behaviour)". Changing - or working with - organisational narratives is crucial for making training stick.

Environment – Do the organisational soundings support the training?

This is a big one. There is no point doing training if it is not supported organisationally. If the reward schemes of an organisation encourage 60-hour weeks and a CEO models this then a stress training programme is unlikely to succeed for example. The entire field of organisational development concerns this and it's beyond the scope of this article. Enough to say here that every training should have a basic understanding of OD and the wider systems they are working in or they will be wasting their time.
Physical environments can also support what people are trying to embed – this is why creative companies often have unusual offices for example and banks more conservative ones. Give delegates a fighting chance by helping them alter the 'choice architecture' and physical environments in favour of the desired change, e.g. changing canteen food if encouraging healthy eating, buying plants to make a less stressful environment or changing an office layout to facilitate the type of communication you'd like. Habits are context-specific and tied to particular places so changing these is often needed (e.g. a team moving desks when changing a way of operating). 
Environment also include your body which is the personnel 'environment' in that it predisposes you to certain actions. Music for example can radically alter mood and the chances for training sticking. Working with the body directly is necessary in any serious behavioural change effort and ignored by most trainers. This 'embodied training' is best learnt face-to-face.

Specific - Does the training suggest discreet positive changes, with specific times and places?

What EXACTLY are delegates going to do after the training? E.g. Not "Work on your time management" but "spend 5 minutes each morning reviewing your to-do list". 
Support/sabotage - Which communities or individuals can help? How may others hinder matters? Who is a role model/mentor in the training area?
Change without a community is almost impossible as Alcoholics Anonymous or Buddhist monks will tell you – we are social animals and need social support, so an organisation's culture and training must be aligned. Immersing delegates in a group of people with a desired capacity is helpful (think of learning a language again), as is having a mentor.
Also consider how delegates might sabotage themselves and return to old ways after training: What are the pay-offs for not changing and how can they get these needs met in other ways? What colleagues, friends and family will want them to stay the same? (relationships are homeostatic too and even ones which consciously support people may unconsciously want them to stay the same).

Manageable - Is it realistic?

Note that perfect is the enemy of good in regard to change and people often give up on over-optimistic plans entirely instead of altering them (some improvement is always better than none). E.g. "I probably won't exercise for two hours every day but could manage 20 minutes three times per week." Baby steps work well and will get people there in the long run. Help delegates break down what they will change as a result of training.

Accountable – Who will delegates tell who will hold them to it?

E.g. Delegates might tell their partners, put a notice in the office, email everyone in their department, etc. Public declarations create commitment, which is why good CEOs openly declare the company's targets. Delegates saying you will do something publicly makes it much more likely to happen as people don't like being hypocrites and promises to individuals are even better as seeing oneself as a liar is undesirable. This can be combined with consequences and motivating others to keep you in check, e.g. "OK Sarah, I'm not going to use homophobic language from now and if you catch me I will give you £10". Note that two people holding each other accountable can work well (like 'gym buddies'), but the risk here is that they will mutually collude so watch out for that.

Reminders – How will delegates remember?

Most desired changes as a result of training don't happen simply because people's lives get busy and they forget. Set-up reliable reminder systems to 'nudge' delegates. High-tech (e.g. a BlackBerry, Outlook, iPhone) or low-tech systems (e.g. a sticker on mirror, a rubber band around the wrist, a picture on the desk) or tie a new element to current habit (e.g. anti-stress breathing exercise delegates do by the photocopier every day or when commuting to work). Assume people will forget everything and put measures in place so they don't. Training with a well-timed review, revision and follow-up plan (one day, one week, one month and one year works well) is far better than 'fire and forget' training, and as mentioned previously recurrent practices are what really change people (see Ricard Strozzi Heckler's books on this).

Terrible/Terrific consequences - What will be the consequences if the training succeeds or fails?

Firstly, how will you know if the training has worked? What, concretely, does success look like? Note the importance to specificity here to determine success unequivocally. Now add to this some consequences for you as a trainer and for delegates. The promise of paying £100 to a political party a coaching client hated, for example, worked well as an excellent motivation to succeed. He called me names of course, at first quite rude ones, but then compliments when it worked three months later. There is now a website to help with this (writing a cheque upfront and giving it to a sadistic friend also works). Rewards are slightly less effective but can be used (e.g. "I'll spend the money I would have spent on smoking on new shoes at the end of the month") but it is important to make any change fun and bring a sense of play to it; ultimately internal motivators to change are the most effective. If you're serious about change you can put your money (or whatever you care about) where your mouth is, and take what you do seriously but yourself very lightly.
So there it is – what it takes to make training stick. If it seems daunting or all steps are not possible in a given instance, doing even a few of these will make a big difference to your chances of success. Happy sticking.
Mark Walsh leads business training providers Integration Training - based in Brighton, London and Birmingham UK.  Specialising in working with emotions, the body and spirituality at work they help organisations get more done without going insane (time and stress management), coordinate action more effectively (team building and communication training) and help leaders build impact, influence and presence. Clients include blue-chip companies, UNICEF, The Sierra Leone Army and the University of Sussex. In his spare time Mark dances, meditates, practices aikido and enjoys being exploited by two cats. His life ambition is to make it normal to be a human being at work

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