The #1 Mistake We’re All Making In L&D

‘Learning Needs’ are too often identified from afar. Whether it’s from our organisation’s leaders; department heads; line managers; or from others in HR. We’ve all been there:

“Hi L&D, our managers need to be better coaches, could you deliver us a course, please?”

On the surface, this request seems pretty reasonable – and fairly common, certainly in my 15 years as an in-house L&D professional.

So, we design our course – or we select our vendors – we schedule the training course and have all our managers attend. We’d seen with our own eyes that they were convinced by the logic during the course; they had a practice in the classroom; and their peers gave them feedback on what they did well and what they needed to improve. By the end of the session we knew that – with a little bit of practice – they would be skilled enough to coach their teams to perform better. Their team members would feel empowered and better equipped, and our programme would have been deemed a success… Hopefully!?

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The only problem with this approach is that, we know, very little happens as a result of the training. Despite what we’ve seen with our own eyes, we know that so little of what people experience on our training programmes equates to an equivalent change when they return to the day job – and we warn them of this when they’re with us because we know that it’s the likely reality. Maybe this is why we prefer to measure the success of our programmes by attendance and happy sheets? Because as soon as they’re out of our sight the content that was delivered is largely out of their mind.

It’s an uncomfortable truth but it’s not inevitable if we only acknowledge our mistake.

When receiving – or diagnosing – the learning need, we are making grand assumptions about the needs of people whose roles we know so little about that we’d fail within minutes in their shoes. We make assumptions such as ‘they need to be better coaches’ in the absence of any better information.

“But how could they not be better managers if they were coaches?”

This seems like a very rational question but it masks our biggest error:

“We need you to do / know this”

This is the flawed premise that the vast majority of training (face-to-face and online) is based upon. It blatantly ignores the situations and challenges that are already being faced in the role of those we wish to influence. I’d go so far as to say ‘we need you to do / know this’ is a lazy oversimplification that we’ve been allowed to get away with because everybody has believed that ‘training is the answer’ and our flawed over-reliance on ‘learning = better working’ has let us down.

But What Do We Need To Do Instead?

It might seem obvious (and maybe unscalable – but bear with me) that we need to start with the people rather than the topic. I don’t mean asking around to find out what people need help with but we should start with data – people analytics, for example. What is your data telling you about what needs working on – and how do you know? Or, how can you use data to backup a generalisation, such as: Our managers all need to be better coaches? Then, cut your data to discover specific points of need or friction. Again, we can’t be applying blanket ‘solutions’ to entire job codes because ‘everybody needs to do this’. If we zero in on where pain (or friction) is being most keenly experienced then we can validate our assumptions with our colleagues who are experiencing it.

With just 5 colleagues who are keenly experiencing friction, get them together to understand what they are trying to do, in relation to your data, and explore with them what is stopping them from doing so. Do this with a customer journey map asking them to write down on post-it notes the friction they are experiencing in trying to achieve their goals.


Your colleagues will share with you their challenges, obstacles and their questions. But once you’ve come to the end of this exercise and you’ve recognised all the things that are preventing them from performing and getting results, you have actual data to work from. Finish this exercise by asking:

“If we addressed all of this together, would you then be able to do (x)?” (x) = what they they couldn’t do so easily before?

What you’re doing here is one of the quickest shortcuts to finding out how things should work and how they are broken. Andrew Jacobs, L&D Transformation Lead at HMRC, recently wrote about this comparing the L&D status quo to shopkeepers:

“Sustainable at a local level because they stock the essentials, in small quantities which they can turn around very quickly.”

But determining that L&D should be more like engineers:

“Engineering is a field devoted to understanding how things work… having whole system understanding, an appreciation of how parts work together, and the final outcome.”

It’s when we understand how parts work together and what might not be working – in reality – that we can make a difference in L&D. One based on efficacy rather than attendance and satisfaction.

With recognition of the real points of friction affecting our colleagues, we can seek the most appropriate and efficient ways to help them overcome them, which could be as simple as a help guide!

So, when the request comes in next time, or you find yourself making large-scale assumptions across entire job codes – and before donning your shopkeeper’s hat and serving the customer – be inquisitive and ask to know more:

  • Ask what has actually been observed and who, specifically, is involved;
  • Explore the data: Your people analytics; customer satisfaction data; employee engagement survey data; exit interviews; and anything else that can help you to zero in on the colleagues who might be most keenly experiencing friction in pursuit of their work goals;
  • Once you’ve identified these colleagues, speak with them to validate any assumptions that have been made about their performance and understand their friction. This is the start of the journey towards actually changing and shaping how they are working.

Acknowledging that ‘we need you to do / know this’ is flawed and, just because you’ve told people they should be doing something different (and you’ve seen them doing it in practice) it doesn’t mean anything will actually change. However, understanding what people aren’t able to do but want to be doing, is the first step in really enhancing their work and their results.

Start with people because that’s where it’s got to continue…

David James is Chief Learning Officer with Looop and was previously Director of Talent, Learning & OD for The Walt Disney Company’s EMEA region.

Now an authority in contemporary L&D practices, David works with businesses to develop and implement social, agile and digital learning strategies that make learning work, with Looop.