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David James


Chief Learning Officer

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Why you should be using performance consulting to address performance and capability gaps


Learning needs analysis (or training needs analysis) provides only a limited view of what organisations need from L&D, when the remit of the function is to improve performance and capability in delivery of an organisation’s goals.

By only looking for learning activities, the opportunity to make real impact is largely lost. This is why performance consulting, as a line of enquiry and a way of collaborating with clients towards a desired outcome, is a much more useful approach, for the client, the business and L&D.

Here's a typical L&D scenario

A people manager or business leader gets in touch and says they need a training course for a team member, or perhaps even a whole team. We listen to their rationale, their hopes (in terms of intended outcomes), and, often, despite our better judgement, we go and design or procure the course they asked for.

It's not only a familiar scenario, it’s probably how we think we add value and align to the business: they ask for training, we deliver.

It can often be difficult to decide what to do in those situations. Do we challenge the people manager or business leader on what they’re seeing and proposing, or do we design the course as requested and hope the real issues are addressed, somehow, through the training?

The alternative to this scenario is to assume a different role, one of consultant rather than course provider, and ask a different set of questions to uncover the real problems and reveal more about what’s going on.

What we’re likely to uncover is that the requested course would be the least efficient and (quite likely) least effective way of addressing the issue.

So what’s the alternative?

Performance consulting is permeating L&D and offering a more effective and efficient way of uncovering – and then addressing – presenting performance and capability gaps, in the contexts in which they are experienced.

Performance Consulting helps you to understand four key things:

  1. What the presenting performance issue appears to be, by asking: What is actually being observed and experienced?

  2. Who is experiencing the performance issue, by asking: Who, specifically, needs to be doing something differently? This could be an individual, team or group of people.

  3. An understanding of how things are currently, by asking: What is happening now?

  4. A recognition – and articulation – of how things should be working, by asking: How do you want things to be?

With an exploration of the answers to these questions, you will start to see what’s really going on and start discovering whether:

  • These people just need to know something

  • They need a little guidance

  • They need to be able to do something differently

  • There is a structural or procedural barrier stopping them or holding them back

  • It is simply down to them not doing something that’s within their capability

We should lead these conversations confident in the knowledge that it's unlikely to be a training issue.

Lack of capability or motivation?

In a recent article Noah Fleming introduced the $5M Cash Test, which helps to differentiate between performance issues occurring due to capability or motivation.

The $5M Cash Test is this:

“Imagine you have a salesperson and you want them to close 100% more deals per month. Could they do it? More importantly, if you offered them $5M cash to accomplish that in one month would they succeed? Or would they fail miserably?”

Noah believes that:

“95 times out of 100, it becomes apparent that they don’t need training, and they recognise exactly the areas that they need to work on.”

Whilst the test, and the article, focuses on sales capability, there are commonalities across other skills that make the topic relatable to other areas, if not an exact science.

By articulating what’s really going on, in terms of people, activities and results, we can focus on supporting people in the context of their jobs.

And this example isn’t to squash the need for something other than a kick up the backside, but should have us think that the provision and investment (of time and money) in designing, scheduling, delivering and attending a training course, could be akin to cracking a poorly defined nut with a training hammer.

But by articulating what’s really going on, in terms of people, activities and results, we can focus on supporting people in the context of their jobs. Often it means providing information, tools, insights or guidance, in the form of resources.

Digital resources can be created in minutes and impact how the work is done immediately. Not only will this address what’s going on specifically, but it won’t leave people waiting for a course to be designed and offered, which could take months and is unlikely to be wholly effective.

To recognise the specifics of what, who and how, you can begin to discuss what can be done, with the client in the same conversation. This agile approach (of working alongside the client on the discovery and solution) means that less time needs to be spent hypothesising and more time spent trying things out and working towards the business and performance outcomes, rather than learning outcomes (attendance, completion, assessment and satisfaction).

How performance consulting changes learning needs analysis

Performance consulting is not just relevant for exploring ad hoc needs but can also be an alternative to learning needs analysis.

When the L&D function goes out to the business to harvest learning needs (still predominantly training needs), they look for common needs that can be aggregated and solved with common one-and-done training courses.

Let’s change the context for a moment and relate these conversations to those in a GP’s surgery. Due to our ability to self-diagnose online, we’re likely to go into the doctor’s surgery with a faint idea of what the ailment might be. We might even tell the doctor that we think we have a specific disease or ailment. The doctor will then ask us questions about the presenting problem and even examine us. That’s like somebody in our business saying to us ‘I’m having trouble getting all my work done, I’m worried the job’s too much for me and I can’t cope.’ If we were the doctor, we might ask, ‘Is this all the time, or in specific situations?’ And we’d continue our enquiry from there.

To elevate the status of L&D it’s important that we help to recognise what’s really going on rather than resort to the training hammer.

But what we often experience is the GP’s equivalent of: ‘My mate needs surgery’ (replace surgery with the name of a course), which would be an over-the-top response to an undiagnosed problem.

Any professional worth their salt would take a step back and try to find out what’s really going on. But in our haste to collect training needs, we write it down and ask what other treatment is needed. Can you see how this is not helpful and is even harmful?

Performance consulting changes the conversation and helps L&D work on the biggest priorities in the organisation, alongside the people affected, until those performance and capability needs are resolved.

Of course, there will be times when it’s best to bring people together for an event, but generally there is less need for the ‘sage on the stage’ to deliver a course that assumes far too much about the realities of working. Progressive companies today use face-to-face events to explore what’s going on now and find better ways of doing things together.

To elevate the status of L&D it’s important that we help to recognise what’s really going on rather than resort to the training hammer. If we can change the conversation to discuss performance of the people and their ability to do their work, that's where we add real value.

Author Profile Picture
David James

Chief Learning Officer

Read more from David James

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