More Training Won't Help Charlie Brown Kick That Ball
published on Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
Last year U.S. corporations spent $160 billion on employee training and education but with little to show for this staggering sum. Most companies don’t measure training’s impact on productivity and those that do are often disappointed by the results. The fundamental problem with this under-studied investment was best capture by W. Edwards Deming’s maxim: “A bad system will beat a good person every time."
The misguided investment brings to mind a Peanuts vignette where an earnest Charlie Brown tries to kick Lucy’s alluring football. American employers in both the private and public sectors keep doubling down on getting Charlie Brown more coaching when the problem is not his technique but rather Lucy’s incorrigible behavior. Charlie Brown is not a blockhead. Lucy is a terrible teammate in a rigged system. No amount of training is going to change the end result.
The Deming quotation and the Peanuts placekicking scene are at the heart of a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Why Leadership Training Fails—and What to Do About It.” In the article the authors contend that real change and performance improvement only materialize when context (organizational design and managerial processes) is transformed. Once the context changes, organizations can truly benefit from the training and education investment.
I agree with this assessment, because like the authors, I’ve witnessed this challenge in organizations and strategic initiatives. Often the problem lies with a disconnect between top managers and staff. The basic message is: do as your trained and not as I do. Senior managers expect their teams to operate in idyllic transparency and clear communications but these same managers cultivate a culture best described as opaque, dysfunctional, and authoritarian. In short, these organizations are managed as Lucy, Inc. Problem is no matter how much they investment in great training, coaching, and feedback loops, employees can’t apply their new insight in a “rigged system.” And if you work long enough at Lucy Inc. even the Charlie Browniest employee will become a cynic. Once a corporate cynic, the bad system has won.
So what’s our solution to this business problem? It starts with Lucy. She needs to understand why supporting Charlie Brown let’s them both achieve a common goal. This exercise doesn’t need to take place in a linear fashion where you reform management and suspend training while management gets on point—a model the the authors of the article propose. Rather, the change management agenda can be fulfilled through overlapping and interactive streams. The first stream begins with aligning management behavior with the corporate objective. That then incentivizes management to support process changes and the training to realize them. Transparent metrics also help to ensure progress is made and roadblocks are exposed.
Managing change begins with systemic reform which empowers modified behavior at the individual level. Not the other way around. So, in short, get Lucy to adopt the playbook and Charlie Brown will crush the ball.