Performance Support & “The Art of War”

Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” is a collection of tactics of a military nature that have many parallels to the “battles” we fight in our everyday work lives. Despite the focus on war, fighting and overcoming enemies, there are peaceful applications of strategy and tactics I choose to employ. Believe it or not, there are useful parallels in managing organizational change with these very same tactics.

There are several direct quotes included in this post, so I will caution that the implications of destruction in battle and overcoming enemies are not part of my message. For example, I’ve used Sun Tzu’s tactics to rid my dog of worms. While an unsavory worming medication represented an effective solution to his problem, the act of convincing him to swallow the capsule is indeed a battle of wills; hence Sun Tzu…and a slice of cheese.

Art of War – Section 1 – Laying Plans
18. All warfare is based on deception.
20. Hold out baits to entice the enemy….

 Advanced tactics [some might say deceptive] that leveraged my dog’s momentum for snarfing cheese proved to be the bait to accomplish successful delivery of the essential medication; wrap the capsule in a piece of cheese. Chomp – chomp – gulp – done!

So…what has this got to do with performance support? More than you might imagine…

The Broken Paradigm of Training

For over thirty years, Learning & Development, in its many manifestations, have been my work home. From HR-based L&D to being embedded in the operational side of the business, I’ve witnessed a great deal of change; some evolutionary…some, not so much. And even within the evolutions, it amazes me how closely aligned to a discipline [like Training] we become. We manage to sink roots so deeply into a long-held paradigm that any disruptions that imply extending core concepts beyond effective knowledge transfer are seen as a bitter pill. Maybe it’s time for some cheese…

Art of War – Section 4 – Tactical Dispositions
3. Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy.
4. Hence the saying: One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.

The passages in the Tactical Disposition Section spoke to me regarding what we accomplish through Training, especially #4. We train our workforce for “battle” by transferring tactical knowledge in a variety of delivery modes, and then confirm that we’ve done so effectively with level 1 and 2 evaluations, but “knowing” is not the same as “doing”.

We crank up Captivate or other simulation authoring tools and do our best to emulate the battle field, but we are still in “training mode” and regardless of how well done the simulations are, our learners will quickly become performers and the knowledge transferred will degrade almost as quickly.

Training tactics are slowly changing. Events are shrinking in size. MOOCs are unhooking linearity as a design concept. Learning is being “bursted” and “microed” in more granular chunks. More video is being embedded. Things are getting more social and collaborative, but the “T” word still seems to be central to the mission. We are still Training. Knowledge retention is still the enemy.

Maybe my formal education and experiences as a performance consultant are to blame for my biases, but I am convinced that we cannot view workforce performance and sustainable business results as anything but the real brass ring. Does that mean Training is no longer at the center? Hardly, but it does imply Training is not alone there.

Art of War – Section 5 – Energy
10. In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack – the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers.
11. The direct and the indirect lead on to each other in turn. It is like moving in a circle –
you never come to an end. Who can exhaust the possibilities of their combination?

Training is a direct tactic – and no matter how innovative we spin it, training is still training. There has got to be more if we are to win the war against loss of knowledge. The “more” implies indirect tactics that are as agile, effective, accessible, and relevant as the business environment they support.

That last paragraph describes where performance support fits. However…performance support is the pill that must be swallowed. Don’t forget the cheese…

Shifting to a Performance Paradigm

My experiences have proven to me time and again, that there is a great deal more to sustaining workforce capability than building and delivering excellent training interventions. That does not mean we abandon Training; instead, it implies the objective shifts to include some indirect tactics that are applied under a different paradigm. Break out the cheese…

Art of War – Section 6 – Weak Points and Strong
31. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows…
32. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.

The performance paradigm is highly focused on a combination tactics that, when designed intentionally, have versatile application in Training assets [direct]…AND…Performance Support [indirect] at the point of work. Intentional design is essential in that regard because, like water shaping its course, the nature of the learning and performance environment we must cover to sustain workforce capability is not of constant shape or conditions.

Given the variability of the conditions in which our workforce must perform, the assets designed for application at the point of work should be of primary concern. In other words, the point of work is the core target that shapes my intentional design. What I design for at the point of work defines granularity that matches up to the actual workflow and process at the task level. These task-level assets can now serve several roles:

  • Embedded Performance Support at the point of work
  • Task-level exercises during formal Training
  • Reinforcement assets for mentors and coaching
  • Self-directed refresher activities in a playground or sandbox environment

Call It Anything But Performance Support

My advice…make that hard-earned advice…gained at the cost of an impressive string of failures, is to not go into an exercise of positioning performance support; hence, the pill in the cheese tactic. If you throw the phrase performance support on the table, you’ll have to explain it…overcome doubts due to unfamiliarity…answer the question “So where have you done this before?”…fight fears that come with bucking the traditions of training to drive performance…and the list goes on. And Sun Tzu does it again…

Art of War – Section 5 – Energy
5. In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.
6. Indirect tactics, efficiently applied, are inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams; like the sun and moon, they end but to begin anew; like the four seasons, they pass away to return once more.

Based on #5, using a direct method to address performance support promotes “joining battle” to explain what it is, when what you really want is to secure a small victory. You need proof, and nothing works better than a small victory in the overarching war of posturing a new paradigm. Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson recommend “Start small and scale!” I see this as the perfect indirect method to gain a small victory.

Take known performance gaps, and intentionally design assets to support Training and the point of work. Measure impact gained from closing the gaps. Rinse and repeat. Again, a small battle is not the same as winning the war, but it starts with a small victory…the proof of concept…“efficiently applied…they end but to begin anew”…meaning the small victory should be replicable and able to scale.
Summary Thoughts

It may have been a stretch to apply “The Art of War” to positioning performance support, but what I’m now seeing as most effective is an indirect approach. Future solutions that I recommend will target workforce performance.

I will no longer position performance support; instead, the solution will deliver what the stakeholder wants – sustainable workforce capability.

I will no longer position performance support; instead, I will extend the training blend into the point of work to address critical moments of need.

I will no longer position performance support; instead, I will shift the conversation to reducing time-to-competency…or…improving time-to-impact.

I will no longer position performance support; instead, I will position a learning path from new hire onboarding training to post-training, task-level, contextual support embedded within the workflow.

I will no longer position performance support; instead, I will hide the pill in the cheese.

As always, thanks for reading and know I welcome your thoughts!

Gary G. Wise
Workforce Performance Advocate, Coach, Speaker 
(317) 437-2555
Web: Living In Learning


The PDF I used for “The Art of War” can be found here: