How to Overcome a Learning Disaster

Sometimes learning and development programs don’t succeed. Occasionally they’re abject failures. However, there are ways to turn potential disasters into learning opportunities.

Be prepared to fail, or come close to it. Those may be harsh words to dispense, but in business — and especially in learning and development — the menacing word “failure” is part and parcel of innovation. While organizations continue to learn that what worked in the past might not work any longer, the prospect of  navigating uncharted waters to produce something new is scary. After all, things can end badly.

“Innovation requires you to have a stomach to experiment,” said Shabnam Irfani, director of learning strategy for Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Innovating requires varying degrees of risk-taking and a sincere belief that the job can be done. It also requires the right mindset. “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat,” Denis Waitely, author of “The Winner’s Edge,” once said. The business world may be slowly warming to the fact that failure isn’t all bad, that it has some virtues, but it’s far from cozying up to it.

Still, it could benefit learning leaders to embrace the developmental opportunities inherent in failure. How they weather the storm from a failed initiative or an unpopular program and apply the learning from these types of disasters or blights will determine how they fare in the future.

Navigating Mishaps

Irfani, who leads sales learning and development at Janssen Pharmaceutical, said the company’s roughly 3,000 sales representatives are responsible for making sure doctors and health care providers have the information they need to make decisions about the medications they prescribe to patients. Their impact is measured in a number of ways, including sales-effectiveness data, which indicates how knowledgeable the sales people are about product information and clinical work.

Management believed while these representatives were incredibly knowledgeable, that knowledge could be elevated to produce deeper, more productive conversations with health care providers and make representatives more confident in the way they overcome objection.

Irfani and her team explored the idea of creating a diagnostic tool they could use to test salespeople on different knowledge areas with questions at the novice, intermediate and expert levels; the objective being to identify knowledge gaps. The team developed and validated a bank of test questions, and considered how they would administer them. Along the way, however, bad things started to happen.

Through the pilot, Irfani discovered salespeople were not ready to be tested. “There was a lot of resistance toward this notion of testing or being diagnosed, even if it was for the betterment of their own personal development,” she said.

Further, Janssen operates in a heavily regulated industry, which meant compliance had to weigh in on the questions developed. Sometimes a question’s true intent would be diluted because of the way it was compliantly used in the field. Salespeople questioned the relevance of the questions to their jobs, then questioned the diagnostic altogether, and the team ended up shelving the product.

Despite the pilot’s disappearance, it was still important for Janssen’s sales representatives to beef up their product and clinical information knowledge. A new marketing leader inspired Irfani to breathe new life into the diagnostic, but it would take a different shape.

The marketing department ran cycle meetings two to three times a year for the sales team. Meetings were packed with critical information on products and clinical knowledge; here was an opportunity for learning to slip in and meet the business’ objectives.

After the engagement, Irfani said she imagined employees would do a knowledge check followed by a message check where people discussed the message, and managers followed up with coaching. The team is approaching its third time using this assessment method, which was gamified in later iterations and made mobile accessible. Representatives were slightly reluctant to do the knowledge checks, but by the third round, they were onboard.

Irfani learned several lessons from her pilot:

Apply some design thinking. When Irfani attached the diagnostic tool to cycle meetings as a knowledge check, it lost some foreboding but kept its power. By walking along a path the employees already travel — the meeting — being asked to reflect on what they’ve just learned made sense.

Play directly to the audience. Irfani and her team were more intentional when revamping the pilot, meeting salespeople at their current knowledge level and ensuring knowledge checks were relevant. “This was much more about ‘What are you doing in the job’ and ‘What have we just taught you,’ ” she said.

Let objectives guide development. Historically, learning tests never told people the correct answers. In this iteration, they did. Irfani said this approach also reassured employees that no one was out to punish them. “This is not a game of ‘I gotcha,’ ” she explained. “If you got it wrong, we want you to learn what you got wrong so you can be the most competitive salesperson out there.” Now, testing was being used as a way to reinforce key learnings.

Risking Good for Great

Stephanie Waite, director of leadership and organizational development at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, doesn’t consider the experiences she’s had as hiccups, disasters or anything negative. She sees them as opportunities.

Such was the case when she saw a need to, as she put it, swerve on a program and do some reassessing. A high-potential leadership development program called Thrive, for managers all the way up to vice presidents, did decently in its first year but didn’t deliver any groundbreaking results.

“People weren’t exactly excited about the program because there wasn’t a huge stickiness or value-add factor,” she explained.

The project team did a stakeholder analysis, talked to past participants and asked tough questions that could potentially change everything: How do we recreate this curriculum? What do we add to make it more effective and efficient? How do we make this something that’s really attractive, not just a requirement?

As a result of the research, the team decided to add an action learning project, which created a sense of community and connectedness within the cohort. People couldn’t just attend the sessions and leave; they had to work on their project outside of the learning environment. In its first year following the addition of the action learning project, feedback has been strong, Waite said; people credit the action learning with more deeply enabling their growth and development.

The program’s reputation is also stronger, and nomination numbers show it. Its first year with the action learning project, Thrive received 65 nominations for 40 spots. Last year it received 120 nominations for 45 spots.

Waite said she could have run a program that was good with a couple of workshops, or they could raise the stakes, and really stretch and challenge participants. “It was a big risk to take, but we definitely had some key stakeholders into the process.”

Waite learned several lessons from her risky development venture:

Collect data. She said what was crucial to finding greater program success was talking to the people who would receive value from it, conducting a gap analysis of sorts to determine what they loved, liked and what went well and what didn’t. Waite now requires a survey to complete the program.

Make revisions based on the data. Once Waite surveyed the landscape, she collaborated with teammates and applied her learning knowledge to decide on a solution. End of program surveys provide additional insights for future cohorts.

Align with overall strategic vision. Meeting with each senior leader for about 30 minutes, Waite asked about their strategic priorities and how her team could best grow their leaders. She asked what was missing from their leadership populations as well as where leaders excelled, “so that we’re not reactively building leaders, we’re proactively building leaders for tomorrow.”

Heading Off Disaster

A tremendous lesson came for Suffolk Construction Director of Curriculum Design and Development Joshua Gilliam at a previous employer where he was in a similar role. He was part of a team rolling out an LMS for an organization with four distinct businesses under an umbrella brand spread in regions across 36 states.

“Instead of launching the learning management system … all at once, we were rolling through some of the different regions, but the first larger region we got to, we starting hitting stagnation,” he explained.

At a gathering with HR business partners and directors, Gilliam found himself in conversations about the rollout; leaders expressed their lack of understanding and confidence in the project.

He said then he recalled there were a lot of “conference call head nods” while the company’s learning team was having project calls with stakeholders. Now he saw the disconnect. A few colleagues even told him some people hoped if they kept their heads down long enough the program would just go away.

“I knew at that moment, from that conversation …we’re in a lot of danger of failing,” Gilliam said.

So, he went to his team and began work on a recovery strategy. The main shortcoming was team members didn’t have the buy-in they thought they had. “You have a lot of individuals who would be doing the work — because we’re changing a system on them — who didn’t necessarily understand or like the change, and they didn’t have someone in their regions explaining it to them, supporting the project and driving it along at the ground level,” Gilliam said.

His team broke down the work to be done — not so much the actual project and plan — but communication for it, messaging, and — this was completely new — who would be responsible for different changes. There was a realization that while they had assembled all the people needed for the implementation, they had left too-broad a stroke across roles and responsibilities.

Gilliam learned several lessons from this near miss:

Talk it out. He received the bad news about his project four or five months away from its rollout. His team concentrated on changing project perception, assigning ownership to regional stakeholders and making sure business leaders anchored the strategy.

Business leaders’ investment and buy-in was imperative, so Gilliam and his team reached out to them to hear their fears and offer clarity. Their support on the ground in their respective regions represented critical glue to hold the program together and ensure its success.

Be an initiative’s biggest spokesperson. “I really tried to put a little bit of a sales hat on, which I think you need in any sort of project management and especially in L&D,” Gilliam said. “Get the client excited for the product, support them in their decisions and make sure there’s buy-in.” Clients need to know what’s in it for them at the individual level so they can find it easier to jump on board, he said.

And, amid any corrective action, learning leaders should find and take hold of wins where they can. Irfani said she reminded her team there was a lot of good work in the initial tool that was shelved. It was only a matter of time before it manifested itself in different ways. And it did in how the group operated as a team, among other things.

There are also some non-negotiables Irfani said she hopes will save her some trouble in the future. In addition to pilots being indispensable, “Now when we have test questions, they have to be instructionally sound, they need to be tested and they have to be relevant,” she said. “If we’re not willing to do those three things, I’m not willing to sign up for this.”

Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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