A couple years ago I wrote a post “Performance Support & the Art of War” with references to Sun Tzu’s writings, and upon rereading am reminded of the significance between tactics and strategy. In short, it seems like strategy represents formalized thinking about what tactics are appropriate to acquire specific results/outcomes. The question that keeps surfacing is “What happens when proven tactics fail to render what strategic thinking and intent envisioned?”
Simple – change tactics. Right? Innovate. Become more agile. Do more, better, faster, cheaper. Integrate newer technologies. Then what? In my 30+ year career in corporate L&D I’ve seen all these tactics find favor at one time or another and wind up rendering inconsistent results. Certainly, there were incremental improvements along the way, but as Sun Tzu says in Section 4 – Tactical Dispositions – “One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.”
Consider this…are we (L&D) fighting the good fight tactically based on a strategy formalized on an incomplete paradigm?
In my last three corporate L&D gigs I had the privilege to work with some very talented professionals. I consistently witnessed production of top-shelf training solutions and some innovative applications of technology. Go back to that Sun Tzu quote above… “One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.” All those gigs owned solid strategic visions of the end-game, but I’m not so sure it was the right end-game. We were looking at only part of the playing field. An incomplete paradigm was the root cause in my mind.
The concept of “incomplete” implies something essential was missing in terms of deliverable. That statement does not invalidate the strategic objectives, nor does it invalidate the tactical approaches employed in what did work well…but the ultimate deliverable missed the mark – sustained workforce capability. The strategy may have had every intent to drive workforce capability, but tactically it was not able to do it because the operational paradigm was incomplete. We had effective transfer of knowledge and skills nailed and all our L&D activity metrics confirmed we had it nailed. So, what was missing? We consistently ignored where performance generated business value…or lost it…or compromised it – Point-of-Work.
Believe it or not, this “miss” is not limited to L&D. Our stakeholders miss it too. We’re both wrapped around the axle of the same paradigm that tells us Training Drives Performance. It doesn’t. Training Drives Potential – Performance is sustained as a capability in our workforce only at Point-of-Work. If that recognition is not part of the strategy…the strategy is incomplete…and the associated tactics are not in place to affect the results we so desperately seek. Time for a re-think! Time for something to trigger a re-think…
Point-of-Work Assessment (WPA)
In the early 2000’s I was approached by the VP of Sales & Marketing with a request to redo his existing Marketing curriculum. At the time, I’d already bought into the Point-of-Work re-think and eagerly agreed to the task. The objective was simply stated: To create a word-class Marketing team – and the stakeholder was convinced training was the only path to get there. In other words, he was tightly wrapped around the training paradigm axle. Fix my training curriculum and life will be grand…
I requested but was denied the time to do a front-end diagnostic assessment because he already knew what was keeping his team from operating at world-class level, so I had to go Ninja and do a covert assessment of my own to reshape his thinking. My objective was to unwrap him from that training paradigm axle and consider that training may not be the only solution. That drill became my first Point-of-Work Assessment (PWA). The visual output from the PWA prompted an immediate strategic re-think by my stakeholder; changed our conversation; reprioritized tactics; and cemented a relationship of trusted business partner from that day forward.
(See Figure 1)
The PWA output provides several things and has multiple deliverables all focused on building a road map for a learning performance solution. The graphic shown above is generated by the initial discovery effort and proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the paradigm’s back. That graphic enabled a dramatic re-think of who L&D represented as a business partner…and… that training was only one tool in our bag of tricks.
In the meeting to share my proposal, I had a stack of discovery findings placed on the corner of his desk, but never touched them. He only saw a single sheet I placed in front of him containing the graphic above. I casually leaned over his desk and with a red sharpie circled the 20% number and said, “This is the bucket where, among other variables, your Marketing Curriculum lives. Are you sure you want to start here?”
He said nothing, sat back in his chair and eyeballed me.
I’d never challenged a senior leader before and was somewhere between running and leaving a puddle under my chair. The PWA concept was new and had been untested under fire at that point. I had no road map to a solution yet. And even today, I would not have a road map at this stage because that deliverable is a collaborative engagement with several players including L&D after the PWA pre-design discovery. The objective that day was simply to change the conversation and re-think the strategy to enable a world-class marketing team.
After a few minutes of silence, I asked, “Which one of these categories do you want to address?”
His response, “All of them!”
Inside I was dancing like only a performance ninja can dance…
What materialized next was a series of strategy meetings that included the Six Sigma team and members of my own L&D team and an assortment of Marketing BMEs. We participated in a “strategic re-think” that focused on all six of the performance restrainers you see in the graphic with prioritized emphasis on the top three.
What had been in my stakeholder’s mind was a routine training transaction with L&D for a quick training fix. The “quick fix” turned into a Black Belt intervention; 3rd party marketing attitude and values assessment survey; targeted performance guidance supporting modified process workflows; a collaboration with the OD team to develop a Leadership Academy; and yes…some informed tweaks to the Marketing curriculum with performance guidance embedded therein…and all that took place over 18 months before we could look back and say that it was a job well done.
That little story really happened, and I decided to share it because it tells the tale of how critical it is that we (L&D) need to be the stimulus that triggers a strategic re-think in our stakeholders’ heads and hearts. The other reason I choose to share this story is to emphasize how critical it is that a strategic re-think is essential for L&D to accomplish first in-house. We need to trigger that re-think for our stakeholders with a different conversation redirected to Point-of-Work, but we need to have bought in long before having that conversation. That single graphic from the LPA approach proved to be a viable trigger because all six of those categories define attributes found to be relevant only at Point-of-Work…our ground zero.
Over the last dozen years, the LPA approach has evolved and is now a component of a holistic L&D discipline I detail in an earlier post: “DRIVER – A Repeatable, Agile, Methodology to Generate Learning Performance Guidance”.
Can your team facilitate that level of conversation? Do you have the performance consulting skills on board to accomplish a PWA?
If there is a potential for strategic re-think on your horizon, we should chat.
Thanks for reading and would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.
Take good care!