“Change is the only constant in life.” Heraclitus really knew what he was talking about when he threw down this quote sometime around 500 BC, and he’s been “retweeted” plenty of times since. While he was likely philosophizing about some pretty deep stuff, this sentiment also applies to the pace of change in today’s workplace.
As L&D professionals, we often find ourselves in chase mode as we try to keep up with our stakeholders’ evolving strategies. We therefore must become change-management experts after recognizing the importance of communicating decisions and managing objections in order to drive desired behavior change. But do we always apply the same expertise when there is change within our L&D teams?
How many times have you jokingly referenced the fact that L&D never sets aside enough time for self-development? Unfortunate, but so often true. We talk a big game when it comes to concepts like continuous learning and change management. But, in real life, we are often so “production-focused” that we fail to eat our own dog food. We make decisions regarding instructional strategy, content, technology, and more without bringing our teams along for the ride. We incorrectly assume that our L&D identity will keep everyone onside without the same effort we put into change initiatives for our audiences.
Many L&D pros base their professional value on their tangible work as well as their unique skills. Even a minor shift in direction can challenge this value and cause the team members we critically need to promote change across the organization to become defensive. If our teams don’t believe in our vision, our initiatives suffer due to distractions, inconsistent execution, and extra work. Therefore, L&D leaders must foster the necessary mindset shift within their teams before attempting to execute change within stakeholder audiences.
I continue to confront this challenge in my work with a variety of global organizations. Here are a few of the practices I recommend to L&D partners to help them enable a mindset shift within their teams. I’ll be calling on examples from my time as director of learning technology and development with Kaplan along the way, too.
Continuously explore new directions
We shouldn’t wait until change is necessary before we start to explore the possibility. For example, even though my Kaplan audience was almost entirely tied to desktop computers to do their jobs, my team still made the effort to explore mobile learning. Not only did this prep my team members for the potential application of mobile technology in future roles, but it also exposed us to related themes that we eventually integrated into our approach. We always dedicated a small chunk of our working capacity to trying out new concepts that weren’t immediately applicable to our audiences. Because we were constantly immersed in aspirational ideas, we were that much more prepared to deal with change when the need arose.
Bring everyone along from the start
This is where working out loud can play a huge role in proactively supporting change within your team. Let’s discuss why I was the only employee in the world’s largest education company who maintained an internal blog. Early on, I recognized the need to pace the rate of change for my team as well as my stakeholders. Therefore, as I explored new themes like shared knowledge and the science of learning, I blogged my findings within our Confluence wiki. This gave anyone who was interested, regardless of role, a chance to see the ideas my team was considering and how these ideas related to their work. When a great idea rose to the top, many L&D team members (plus stakeholders) already had some exposure to the concept and were better prepared to take the next step. It also provided me with a ready resource to push to impacted partners and eliminated the need to add this work into already tight project schedules.
Clearly define vision and roles
Once you make the decision to initiate change, the clock is ticking. You only have a limited time to clarify your vision within the L&D team before people start filling in the blanks with their own concerns. And it’s not just the overall vision that requires explanation. As soon as change is detected, people will start asking, “How does this affect me?” If you decide to augment your online training content, your classroom trainers are going to wonder. If you start down the path of user-generated content, your content developers will be curious. If you delegate reporting to front-line managers, your admins will notice. Clearly defining each individual’s role in executing your new vision before you attempt to implement outside the team, regardless of whether or not it may change from what it is today, is time-consuming. But it’s also critical!
Provide relevant examples
People may say they “get it,” but they may also be worried about their jobs. If you’re worried about being replaced, you may try to avoid appearing confused or getting a reputation for rocking the proverbial boat during a time of change. Providing tangible examples of similar implementations can help ensure consistent understanding of your new vision. For example, when we introduce the Axonify Knowledge Platform within an organization’s distribution functions, we heavily leverage case studies from our partnership with Walmart as part of our change strategy. This includes logistical details, measurable business outcomes, and anecdotal feedback from various stakeholders, including the L&D team and front-line employees. The new organization may not be exactly like Walmart, but seeing these potentially disruptive ideas come to life in an impactful way can help clarify the overall vision and allay team member concerns.
Apply the same principles within L&D (first)
Another great way to help your L&D team get more comfortable with a new idea: Apply that idea within your team before you take it out to your audiences. Prior to positioning shared knowledge as the foundation of workplace learning at Kaplan, we tested and perfected our approach within our own team. We’re doing the same thing within Axonify as we develop new product features and strategies. This helps our team members to position the value of these ideas with their audiences based on their personal experience—not just theory. It also gets team members hands-on with a new approach and the roles they will play more quickly than an external implementation, which requires a lot more planning.
Make time for upskilling
We can’t just expect every L&D professional to be capable of executing a new vision with their existing skills. That sounds obvious, but we too often make this mistake for expediency or to minimize disruption in workflow. While we are the internal experts in learning and performance, we can’t do absolutely everything in our field. We must dedicate time, effort, and resources to any upskilling required to execute on a new vision. When we shifted some of our classroom training capacity to online performance support at Kaplan, we put our trainers through a series of workshops on how to help employees in a new way. They had the initial motivation and workplace knowledge necessary to execute the new assignment, but they needed some help with the process, technology, and interaction model to deliver the desired user experience. In many cases, this upskilling may require bringing in outside help from an industry expert who has more experience with the concept than anyone within your organization.
Be ready for difficult conversations
Hopefully all of my previous tips work perfectly, and you never make it this far down the page. Unfortunately, this one comes up now and then. For whatever reason, a team member may be unwilling or unable to shift their mindset and adopt the new idea. It’s time for a difficult conversation about their role within the modern learning organization. Be honest and direct. Have this conversation as early as possible, before the individual figures out the potential mismatch all on their own and reacts negatively. Be aggressive in offering development opportunities and coaching to support their mindset shift if it’s still at all possible. Otherwise, if L&D will not be a fit moving forward, be ready to offer options regarding their role, hopefully within a value-add position inside the same company. We should do everything we can to avoid getting this far, but we also can’t let the status quo slow us down if we hope to provide tangible value to our business partners.You may have already noticed that none of my suggestions is new or even exclusive to L&D. While change is a natural part of every role in a modern workplace, L&D professionals are expected to be better at the task than others who don’t focus their work on behavior improvement. If our own team members don’t believe in our vision, how can we expect the people we support to believe? Strategy, tactics, technology—they all play important roles in change-management initiatives. However, they are ultimately worthless if we can’t first enable the mindset shift that will allow people to accept and embrace the new behavior we wish to enable.