Have you ever responded to a training request with “NO!”

I’ve been doing this for over 15 years, and I’ve never said NO. Have I always delivered the exact solution stakeholders requested? Absolutely not! This is because I realized the key to saying NO was to avoid saying NO. That sentence will make sense in about five minutes, I promise.

First, a reality check

L&D pros are justifiably passionate about transitioning from order-takers to performance consultants. However, we must acknowledge a stark reality before we can make this happen. L&D often doesn’t have the clout needed to say NO to stakeholders. This was certainly the case in my first few L&D roles. We had positioned ourselves as a “shared service” that supported “the business” with priority projects. This artificial separation made us a vendor in the eyes of our “clients,” even though we all worked for the same company and were chasing the same goals. What do influential people with high-stakes problems do when a vendor won’t provide the solution they requested? They find a more agreeable option.

We didn’t want stakeholders to go around us for fear of reducing our perceived value. So, we said YES to pretty much everything thrown our way. If they wanted a 30-minute online course that covered all 200 PowerPoint slides' worth of source content, we gave it to them. Our acquiescence made stakeholders happy, and the requests kept coming. At the same time, our submission was eroding the value of learning in the eyes of our most important partners: employees. It didn’t matter where a solution originated. If they thought training was a waste of time, they blamed L&D, and it became more difficult to get people to engage. This was also L&D’s fault according to stakeholders.

NO is spelled “Y-E-S, A-N-D”

My personal turning point came during an annual product knowledge assessment. We were required to deliver online exams to contact center agents who supported specific product lines. The stakeholders were adamant that this must be done to make sure agents were up-to-speed. However, I knew what was actually happening. Agents saved and shared the answers to make sure they hit the required 100% passing score on the first try. Nevertheless, my team wasted three weeks every year administering these (misguided) exams.

There was an opportunity hiding within this familiar order-taking experience. The next time our “clients” came to us to begin the process, I borrowed a concept from improv comedy. Rather than arguing about the efficacy of one-and-done testing, I responded with “yes, and …” My team would execute the (ridiculous) exams as required. AND, we wanted to use revised versions of the questions for reinforcement before the next testing period. The stakeholders got what they wanted, so they didn’t mind our request to do extra work.

We deployed a series of scenario-based quizzes via our adaptive learning platform every few weeks. Each quiz took less than five minutes to complete and fit seamlessly into the busy contact center workflow. We didn’t require a passing score because we wanted agents to be comfortable with getting questions wrong. We shifted the focus from assessment to learning through application. Along the way, we recognized agents who consistently demonstrated high knowledge levels to motivate others to engage in these voluntary practice activities. Our goal was to make sure agents remembered critical product information all of the time, not just when they needed to pass an exam.

I brought receipts (aka engagement stats from our ongoing reinforcement activities) when it was time to begin another round of (foolhardy) exams. I displayed detailed information about the current state of advisor product knowledge gathered during eight months of reinforcement. Then, I asked for opinions. Would they prefer the annual, one-and-done test scores or real-time knowledge data moving forward? Everyone picked the latter. And just like that, the annual certification process was no more, eliminated in favor of ongoing reinforcement.

Don’t share credit. Give it away.

I started “yes, anding …” my way into small experiments and proof of concepts across the organization. For example, I would agree to build an overstuffed eLearning module AND suggest a performance support resource. Then, I demonstrated how much more quickly we could implement performance support, how much less disruptive it was for employees to use, and how much more they preferred it. This approach required some extra work from my team, but it started to shift people’s mindsets regarding right-fit learning and support solutions. Plus, we avoided saying NO.

We also refused to accept credit when we discovered better ways to solve performance problems. We always made it very clear that the stakeholder had chosen to adopt the new solution and was responsible for the improved results. You’d think this would lessen the value of L&D and embolden stakeholders to come to the table with even more pre-determined training requests. In reality, it did the opposite. People were more open to our input than ever before. In fact, stakeholders came to us for help on projects that had nothing to do with learning simply because they valued our insight and partnership. We became performance consultants.

Trust changes everything

Credibility does not give you permission to say NO whenever you want. Instead, it helps you avoid situations that require negative responses. The entire conversation changes when people trust you. Rather than beginning with “we need you to make a …” people start by asking “how would you deal with … ?”

They may have hired you to be their internal learning and performance expert, but stakeholders need to see what L&D can really do before they’ll change how they collaborate. This doesn’t mean they’re stubborn or that you aren’t good at your job. They may have limited exposure to modern workplace learning practices and think courses are the only solution. They may have had negative experiences with other L&D pros in the past. It’s up to you to build relationships and influence perspectives by demonstrating your capability, empathy and agility.

Who knew the key to becoming a performance consultant was knowing how to apply the basic rules of improv comedy?

Be safe. Be well. Be kind to the frontline.

From the editor: Want more JD Dillon wisdom?

Register for the online Learning Solutions Digital Experience, May 3-14, 2021 and attend JD's session 213 - Ruthless Efficiency: AI and the Not-So-Distant Future of Learning. Learn how to overcome the challenge of limited time by applying modern learning tactics that will make you ruthlessly efficient in your L&D practices.

While you are online May 3-14, 2021, check out the pre-conference opportunities, the keynotes, and over 120 concurrent sessions from expert presenters on the topics of most importance to L&D professionals. The Learning Solutions Digital Experience offers the best value for your time this spring!