Write a strong goal: Sell it to Scrooge

A pile of Euro coinsWhen a client says, “My team needs training,” they might not realize it yet, but they have a bigger goal in mind. That goal is the real reason the project has to happen.

Unfortunately, it’s common to develop training with the wrong type of goal. Below are some typical goals. They all have a big blind spot. What are they missing?

  • Salespeople will know all the product features.
  • Managers will handle difficult conversations better.
  • Everyone will use the new software.
  • People will be aware of the dangers of the internet.
  • Leaders will help people adjust to big changes.

If you had $40,000 and someone asked you to spend that money on any of the above goals, what would you say?

Here’s what I’d say: “What will I get in return?”

A business goal is the “What’s in it for me?” for the organization. It justifies the existence of the project in business terms. None of the goals above clearly shows what’s in it for the organization.

Let’s see how it works with the first goal, “Salespeople will know all the product features.”

Sell it to Scrooge

Imagine that I’m a C-level type in a widget company and I’m sitting behind a tidy pile of $40,000.

A training person, let’s call him Bob, comes to me and says, “Give me that $40k, and in return, salespeople will know all the product features.”

“What, can’t they read the product brochure?” I say, wrapping my arms around the money.

“Well, yes, but they’re not selling our widgets as well as they could,” Bob says. “Our mystery shoppers say that the salespeople just sell the micro widget. They ignore the mega and mongo widgets even when they’re the best widgets for the customer. We have a reputation as cheap widget-pushers.”

“So tell them to sell more mega and mongo widgets,” I say.

“But we don’t want them to sell the mega or mongo if it’s the wrong widget for the customer,” Bob says. “That goes against our mission and will hurt our brand.”

“You want this money,” I say, “so you can help salespeople identify the best widget for the customer?”

“Yes, that’s it,” Bob says. “I guess just knowing the features isn’t enough. They have to develop the skills to identify the customer’s needs and then match the features to those needs.”

“And then what will happen?” I say. “How will I get my $40k back?”

“Sales of mega and mongo widgets will go up,” Bob says. “Since we make more profit from those than from the micro widgets, we’ll make more money.”

“And…?” I say in my most annoying tone, still gripping the money.

“And our reputation will improve, helping our brand,” Bob says. “Overall sales could go up and we could gain market share, because we’ll become the widget company that really listens. Everyone else just pushes widgets.”

“All right,” I say, reluctantly peeling $20k off the pile. “Here’s some money. Let’s see if you can show a 5% increase in mega and mongo widget sales by fourth quarter. If so, we’ll use the rest of the money to expand what you’re doing and see if we can gain market share.”

What changed during the conversation?

Bob’s goal started as this:

  • Salespeople will know all the product features

It ended as this:

  • Mega and mongo widget sales will increase 5% by Q4 as salespeople identify the best widget for each customer

Bob now has a way to measure the success of his project, at least in the short term, and it’s a measure that benefits the business as a whole. His new goal justifies the expense of the project.

Bob’s new goal also shows everyone involved in the project that he’s serious and is going to measure results. It shows that “training people” like Bob play vital roles in the success of the organization.

Imagine the training that results

A good business goal helps you sell your project to Scrooges like me, but it also has a profound effect on the type of training you develop.

Bob’s original goal was “Salespeople will know all the product features.” What would have happened if I were out of the office and someone gave Bob all the money without challenging his goal? What kind of training would he create?

Bob’s revised goal aims to increase sales of specific products by having salespeople identify the best widget for each customer. How did the new goal change Bob’s approach to his design?

See what happens next

I’ve continued the story on a separate page to keep this post short.

If this seems like something out of a book, that’s because it is. I’m writing a book on action mapping, and it should be available in the next couple of months. I’ll be sure to announce it in the blog.


Scenario design course starts soon

My four-week, online scenario design class starts on April 21. I’ve added a second session scheduled for the Americas because the first is nearly full. Find out more.

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How to kick off a project and avoid an info dump

Course factory workerDo you feel like you’re an assembly line worker in a course factory, expected to crank out training on demand?

Break free of the assembly line with a strong kickoff meeting that puts you in charge of the design. Here are some ideas on how to start a project in a way that will avoid an information dump and win the happy obedience of your stakeholders.

We’ll go into detail and practice these techniques (and more!) in the workshop I’m giving in London on June 6.

What’s the first step?

The next time someone drops a pile of PowerPoints in your in box and requests “a course,” respond with a request for a meeting “to make sure I understand what you need.” Two hours is usually enough.

Who should be included in the meeting?

The minimum participants are you (the designer), the person who asked for the training (the “client”), and one or preferably two subject matter experts (SMEs) who are familiar with how the job is currently done.

Depending on the situation, you might also want to include someone who recently learned to do what’s about to be trained and any stakeholder who could veto the project.

What’s the format?

I recommend you use action mapping, so a whiteboard or a laptop with mind-mapping software and a projector will be helpful. I’ve done these meetings remotely, with a shared screen on a webinar platform, but in person I’d prefer a whiteboard and sticky notes.

What’s the goal for the meeting?

Your secret goal for the meeting is to confirm that training really should be part of the solution, and if so, to avoid creating an information dump.

The reason you give to the participants is something like, “To design the most effective training, I need to understand the problem really well.” Put yourself in the role of the eager yet ignorant outsider and don’t directly challenge the client’s assumption that a course is the solution.

How do I start the meeting?

Give a very quick overview of the process, maybe saying something like the following.

  • We’ll use a quick process that helps me understand in detail what you need people to do, so I can design relevant and challenging activities.
  • We’ll start by stating a measurable goal so we’ll know when the training has worked.
  • Then we’ll specify what exactly people need to do to reach that goal and why they’re not doing it, so we can find the best way to change their behavior.
  • The result will be interesting, relevant training that will clearly contribute to the organization’s goals [if possible, add or suggest “and make us look good”].

It might be best not to mention the content at all beyond saying that you’ve reviewed what you’ve been given and need to understand the situation better before you can start designing the “course.”

Then what?

With all the meeting participants, follow the first steps of action mapping, which have been expanded a bit in the last year.

  • Identify a goal that captures in a measurable way why the training is important to the organization (“Improve employee retention 15% by Q2 of next year,” not “Respect diversity”).
  • Expand the goal to identify the audience and give a general idea of what they’ll be doing (“Employee retention will improve 15% by Q2 of next year as mid-level managers follow the new policy on diversity”).
  • Identify specifically and concretely each action that members of the audience need to take to reach the goal (e.g., “Avoid assigning minority employees only to minority clients,” not “Be color-blind”).
  • Prioritize the actions — identify the most egregious problems.
  • Use the flowchart to identify why each important action isn’t always performed correctly, and gently resist stakeholders’ attempts to blame everything on a lack of knowledge.

Be sure to go through the flowchart

Last year I added a flowchart that can dramatically change how stakeholders view the problem and its solution. The more specifically you apply the flowchart, the better your results.

For example, don’t say, “So why do you think managers aren’t respecting diversity?” Instead, focus on each individual action, for example, “Why aren’t managers disciplining people for making offensive jokes?”

If stakeholders blame a problem solely on a lack of knowledge, gently push back. For example: “Okay, you’re saying managers just don’t know that they should discipline people for making offensive jokes. I’m wondering if there’s something more complex here, like maybe the managers know they’re supposed to discipline people but aren’t comfortable providing the discipline. Do you think that might be happening?”

The stakeholders will likely agree and might propose ways to solve that problem. If they don’t come up with their own solutions, you might suggest one, again posing it as a question: “Do you think it could help to give them some sample wording to use for typical situations and let them practice?”

Let the stakeholders see the best solution for themselves

Questions are far more persuasive than advice. Keep asking questions until the client or SME sees for themselves that an info-dumping “course” isn’t the best solution. Let them see how job aids or a change in tools could solve the problem without training, and let them notice on their own that a lot of the content they provided isn’t necessary.

You’re saying we can do all this in just two hours?!

You can get a very good head start in just two hours. I can usually get through setting the goal, identifying the most problematic actions, and identifying why those actions aren’t being performed correctly.

You may need to work a bit after the meeting with a SME to finish analyzing the problem. However, brainstorming activities and identifying which content to include aren’t part of the kickoff –they’re your job.

You might want to include a SME later when brainstorming activities, but make sure to keep tight control so the activities are realistic and challenging and the content is as minimal as it can get.

How can I justify the time required?

If you get resistance to the idea of a two-hour meeting, point out that it will likely result in much more concise, efficient training.

For example, a course that the client expected would require four hours for the 1,200 learners to complete might be reduced to some powerful job aids and one hour of very targeted activities. This saves three hours x 1,200 learners or 3,600 hours, thanks to the two hours invested in the kickoff meeting.

Practice with this scenario!

Try this branching scenario to practice running an action mapping kickoff. Can you win the client while avoiding an information dump?


London workshop on June 6

Join me and Norman Lamont in London on June 6 for the one-day, hands-on workshop “Training design for business results.” You’ll get in-depth practice applying these skills and many more to one of your projects. Learn more about the workshop.

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How to create a training goal in 2 quick steps

A measurable business goal is a great way to focus your training and show how your work helps your organization — that’s why it’s the first step in action mapping.

Unfortunately, most clients don’t have a clear goal, so here’s a quick formula that can help you connect what they want with what’s good for the organization.

1. Choose your numbers

Identify a measure that the organization is already using that your project could help improve. Once you have that, decide how much you’ll improve it and by when.

Some examples:

  • “We need sales training” — Sales will increase 5% by Q3
  • “We need diversity training” — Employee retention will increase 8% by 2015
  • “We need training on conflict management” — Grievances will decrease by 10% in two years

Obviously, the best measure will depend on the organization and its current strategies.

2. Identify in general terms what people will do

Your goal from step 1 could be enough, but it can help to add a second layer and mention in general terms what your audience will do differently.

Some examples:

  • “We need sales training” — Sales will increase 5% by Q3 as all sales people use the 5-step Customer Courtship Model
  • “We need diversity training” — Employee retention will increase 8% by 2015 as all employees better manage diversity
  • “We need training on conflict management” — Grievances will decrease by 10% in two years as team leaders better manage conflict on their teams

Formula to create a measurable business goal for training

By making goals like this, we’re not promising that our project alone will be responsible for the change in numbers. However, we’re making clear that our project is directly tied to an important measure that affects the performance of the organization and we’re serious about designing a solution that works.

When you involve the client and subject matter expert in setting this goal, you also start to turn their attention away from knowledge and toward changes in behavior. This can help loosen their obsession with information and save your audience from another ineffective information dump. It also makes it easier to suggest more agile solutions than training.

Claim your place in an Australian workshop — time is running out

Learn how to set these kinds of goals and design lean, powerful elearning in a full-day workshop. Seats are strictly limited to 30 so we can get deep into applying what you’re learning to one of your projects. These will be hands-on workshops. Thanks to the E-learning Network of Australasia for organizing the events!

Melbourne, Nov. 26: Act quickly to sign up for Tuesday’s full-day workshop on elearning design. Sign up here!

Sydney, Nov. 29: There are still some places available in Friday’s session. Claim your spot!

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