All posts by Mark Kizilos

Mark Kizilos
Mark Kizilos, Ph.D., is the author of FrameBreaking Leadership Development: Think Differently about Work Experiences to Achieve More, Faster, and the creator of BetterDevelopmentPlans.com, a tool for helping leaders identify the developmental content of performance challenges.

Taking a Page from the LMS Playbook

Cursor and handNot long ago, I was looking for statistics to make the case for an increased focus on experience-driven development.

First, I found these useful citations for the business case:

  1. Professionals increasingly expect to drive their own development. 79% of professionals now expect their development to come from non-L&D sources (Corporate Executive Board, Building a Productive Learning Culture, 2014).
  2. Professionals understand that experience-driven development is critical to their career success. Access to better professional development opportunities is ranked as one of the three most important factors by nearly half of those considering a job change (LinkedIn Global Talent Trends, 2015).
  3. Individuals and their organizations need help doing it more effectively. Approximately 55% of people do not regularly extract lessons from their work. In fact, poorly conceived stretch assignments are one of the biggest sources of waste in the field of learning and development (Corporate Executive Board, Building a Productive Learning Culture, 2014).

With these figures in hand, I was feeling pretty confident about the opportunities for those of us who are practitioners focused on experience-driven development.

Then, I came across this statistic: The $2.5 billion Learning Management Systems (LMS) industry is expected to grow to nearly $8 billion over the next three years (Capterra website, 2015).

Wait.

People are seeking more experience-driven development, yet there is an increasing focus on the “10” from 70-20-10?

What’s going on? I think it has something to do with this: Structured activity drives out unstructured activity.

The Power of Structure

An increase in LMS investment isn’t, in itself, a bad thing. Recent advances in technology have made e-learning much better than it was in the past. The internet has made it easier to distribute rich content. It’s a great way of doing more with less.

But for the most part, the typical LMS just makes it more efficient to structure, manage, and track formal learning. All of the learning content in an LMS has been neatly mapped so that individuals can quickly access what they need. Want to learn about strategy? Take the strategy modules. Want to develop certain critical competencies? All the learning content has been conveniently packaged and indexed for you by competencies as well. And, now it’s mobile, too!

And, because it’s easier to structure and track formal learning activity, it continues to get more attention than the relatively unstructured activity of learning from experiences.

To develop talent through experience, maybe we need to acknowledge the power of structure and find a way to use it.

“If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.”

If we take 70-20-10 at all seriously, it means job experiences contain a lot more of the critical learning people need than all of the great content in even the best LMS.

But learning from experience isn’t structured. It’s uncharted. It’s completely customized. Learning from experience is hard to corral, map, and track for one person – much less an entire organization.

People need to figure out which experiences can teach what they need without a convenient set of learning objectives. Then, once they start on a particular development experience, they have to extract the learning. The lessons may not be obvious, learning won’t be guaranteed and insight will never be packaged.

While learning from experience will always be less structured than formal learning, I think we can make it easier. What if we take a page from the LMS playbook and do a better job of communicating experience needed, lessons to learn, and a path forward?

What if we got to the point where we could provide personalized guidance that helps people see their work challenges as a learning context analogous to courses in an LMS? Our systems would enable a manager to say, “As you work on this performance goal for the coming year, here are some lessons you should seek for your development as a leader.” Of course, different goals would offer different potential contexts for learning, and the lessons leaders could (or should) learn would depend on their past experiences.

Is it useful to apply more structure to experience-based learning in your organization? Does it help to think of each job as a personalized LMS? What would it take to get there?

How the Best Development Experiences Can Produce the Worst Learning Outcomes

Top talent. Great development opportunity. High expectations for learning. It’s a combination that should work—but all too often, outcomes fall short.

Expectations for learning are not met. Even if the person delivers business results, he or she doesn’t learn or develop as much as desired—leaving a skills gap yet to be filled.

How can something so right go so wrong?

While failure to learn is not inevitable, it is common, in spite of mapping out a “great” development experience. In hindsight, we might point to any number of reasons:

  • “The person wasn’t as good as we thought.”
  • “It was the wrong experience or it wasn’t structured properly.”
  • “Learning expectations were not clearly communicated.”
  • “The person needed more or different support than we provided.”

While any of these may be true for a given experience, here is an alternative explanation:

Great development experiences can threaten one’s track record of success.

Great development experiences push people out of their comfort zones. The best experiences place people into situations where they face higher performance demands than they have faced in the past. They are working in situations that are unfamiliar.

Stated simply, great development experiences involve significant performance challenges. The problem?

When people are concerned that they will fail, they don’t focus on learning.

When risk and failure are front-and-center, people often try to get the job done by using what they already know. Rather than experimenting with new ideas and approaches that may not work, they will try to succeed by leveraging what has worked in the past.

You might be thinking, “Our top performers are better learners.”

Maybe, but research suggests that when people face a significant challenge or “threat,” they often respond in rigid ways—narrowing their focus to the problems at hand, and seeking solutions based on how they have approached similar situations in the past.

This means that the very challenges that you provide to spark learning can set up a dynamic that inhibits learning. A colleague described this extreme example of an individual who actively avoided learning from a development experience because he was worried about failure:

“This high potential leader was given an assignment to lead an important and complex project. The idea, not very well articulated to him, was that he needed to build project management skills. The high potential knew that he didn’t have the necessary skills. Not wanting to fail, he promptly delegated the project management tasks to a strong project manager on his team.”

It’s tempting to dismiss the above example as extreme, or to simply blame the high potential’s manager for not clarifying learning expectations in this situation. But I think this is a great example of how a performance mindset can drive out a learning mindset.

By definition, learning means risk—trying out new ways of thinking or taking a new course of action that may fail. If we don’t intentionally support and foster a learning mindset, the performance culture in most organizations will drive it out. The threat of visible failure will override the learning agenda. The talent and the organization may get results in the short term, but over time both are likely to suffer.

What can be done, then, to deliver on learning expectations from development experiences?

Get people thinking about how to learn more, faster.

First, let people know why experience-driven learning matters. Why developmental experiences are expected and valued. Why a learning mindset must augment the performance mindset.

Then, teach people how to approach their development experiences with a learning mindset. Here are just a few questions to consider using with top talent who are entering challenging development experiences:

  • In what ways will this experience challenge me?
  • What am I going to learn from this experience?
  • What risks might I face in taking on this experience?
  • What learning can I get from this experience that will help me achieve my long-term goals?

When we foster a learning mindset with top talent, they will get the most out their developmental experiences. Without it, performance pressure will likely win the day and important development needs will be left far behind.