“Hey, that didn’t suck!” says the executive vigorously shaking my hand at the end of a learning engagement. I look him in the eyes, laugh and point out that this is not the first time someone has made that comment.
Reflecting on this reaction made me want to share what I have learned about creating powerful learning engagements. After more than 25 years in the learning profession, from new-hire orientation programs to senior team development at Fortune 100 companies, I have captured a lot from observing so many learning programs and initiatives.
Common sense may not be a common practice. Think about it: As humans, we look out at the world as we travel through it and learn from it. We are challenged and changed by the things we are exposed to and interact with. The majority of those experiences that truly impact us as humans are those we feel a part of, not simply like passengers tagging along. When you listen to stories from leaders, their deepest learning experiences have come from being a part of hard-won struggles in which they had to fight to succeed or learned from failure.
Why should executive learning engagement efforts be any different? Developing smart people is a craft, an art form that involves a combination and balance of the right content to meet the right context for the learner. That learner then must be given the opportunity to get in the driver’s seat to truly leverage the content and context they have been exposed to. How we as humans naturally learn in life should be applied to executive development and creating highly engaging learning environments.
Like the long-seeded practices of traditional higher education, executive education is stuck in some of the same mud. Overcoming old models and navigating traditions requires taking risks and pushing beyond the status quo. To build great, engaging learning experiences, consider the following four essentials.
Commit to the ‘True Few’ Learning Objectives
The famous saying, “I didn’t have the time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead,” often comes to mind when sitting down with design teams. Prioritizing and honing the learning objectives up front is key to the end game of delivering an impactful learning experience.
Start this process by asking stakeholders questions that involve them in the identification of the highest-impact learning objectives for the specific population. Then have stakeholders come together, prioritize and cut the list off at what you have time to deliver. Don’t give in to bolting on more. If you wanted to learn a new language, you wouldn’t try to learn Spanish, German and Mandarin all at once.
Instead, prioritize learning objectives and be willing to do less in the name of excellence. When you get pushback from business unit leaders, be bold and point them to the data. The learner needs to exit the learning engagement with a memorable experience that reminds them of resources, strongly imprints a personal understanding of what they need to do differently and leaves an indelible memory of what can happen if they do or don’t follow up.
Connect the Learning Through Orchestration
Connect intellectual horsepower and content to the real world for learners. Every speaker — regardless of topic, expertise or origin — must relate the content to what it means for the specific audience. This ties back to committing to the true few learning objectives.
Let’s just say it — we all have tried to work with speakers in advance of the delivery to really push for customization, and typically it is difficult. Getting those amazing professors from prestigious universities to customize content to your industry or specific challenges is next to impossible. They are just moving too fast and have a lot to cover. Worse, I have even seen their smooth deliveries stumble as they get out of sync by trying to customize content. Organizations pay a lot to have their brilliant content and insights. For your delivery, you want that content to roll smoothly with all the entertaining presentation points the professor has rehearsed and scripted.
Whatever the delivery method, investing in a highly skilled learning orchestrator who constantly puts connection points at the center of the learning experience is invaluable if you are to see the benefits of the intellectual horsepower you paid for. The orchestrator is the “red thread” that connects the content over and over again. Connect, connect, connect, and then it is not enough to leave it for the learner in the room to connect it on their own. Instead, you need to put the learner in the spotlight to drive them to share their personal connection. This will keep the learner from feeling like just a butt in a chair and imprint a personal understanding of what they need to do.
Use ‘Next Practice’ Learning Methods
So, you have narrowed the objectives, you have excellent speakers who have created space for the audience to think and share ideas, and you have a highly skilled orchestrator who can seamlessly connect the brilliant insights from the speakers to key learning objectives, but something is still missing.
I learned the following approach from Larry Rosenstock while taking a tour of his innovative and award-winning High Tech High in San Diego.
Take a moment and ask yourself, what are the two most memorable classroom learning experiences from your high school years? Write those down. Write next to each one the key characteristics that defined that experience. What made it so memorable?
Rosenstock has done this exercise with thousands of educators and communities in large groups. I have done it in design meetings with tough, risk-averse organizations. The list generated is always the same. People overwhelmingly remember learning experiences that involved one or a combination of these six elements:
- A project.
- Fear of failure.
- Recognition of success.
- A mentor.
- A public display of work.
Humans learn — truly learn — when they are at the center of a memorable learning experience. The majority of the development designs and learning engagements out there don’t start with any of these six elements. Designing in these elements is not hard and there are plenty of tried and tested experiences available. Each organization strategically needs to look closely at how these can be leveraged into the design to meet their learning objectives.
I narrowed Rosenstock’s six elements into three categories most commonly used in corporate development. It is important to note that more than one of the six elements may be present in any of the following three next practice learning methods.
Immersive learning experiences allow participants to be immersed in something very different and much bigger than themselves. These engagements can create an emotional connection to heady, hard-to-comprehend messages and bring to life the content you are trying to highlight. For example, if inspiring a culture of innovation is one of your learning objectives, you need your participants to experience and see first-hand what that looks, feels and smells like. By immersing participants in that setting, they can’t help but better understand it, see the gaps and make mental notes on what they need to do to make innovation a reality in their own world. Crafting and discussing predetermined “lens questions” prior to your visit will keep learners focused on key aspects and takeaways.
Experiential methodologies provide powerful, quick-hit opportunities to catch yourself or your organization in the act of being yourself. These methodologies need to be challenging, population-appropriate, problem-solving activities that involve a clear goal and outlined constraints, which engages the learner’s instinct to succeed. Often these experiential tools are used as a practice field for specific subjects such as collaborating effectively, creating an environment of innovation, establishing trust, and using persuasion and influence. Experiential methodologies also are excellent at catching leadership styles and behaviors in action. When there is fear of failure and there is recognition of success with mentors and peers in the room, the impact of learning is heightened.
With the use of mentors and executive coaches, in the moment, real-time peer feedback or behavioral observations provide executives with undeniable cause-and-effect of their actions. It is hard to teach smart people something new, but when it comes to recognizing their own behavioral missteps in action, people learn.
Project-based learning/action learning projects are all about delivering a result in which peers or superiors are evaluating what you deliver (a public display of your work). Knowing your performance is being observed by peers or superiors drives performance and behavior. Project-based learning involves real tasks of novel challenge for participants to solve.
Action learning projects that address a real company issue have been popular in development for years. These are typically complex, “heady, not sweaty” projects in which an individual or a group of diverse learners work to present a solution.
Team-based projects allow participants to work deeply within team and leadership dynamics. Individual projects can be focused on an individual’s business unit challenges. Whether individual- or team-based, with careful selection projects can drive participants to wrestle with specific issues that mirror solutions and thinking needed in their specific business or industry.
When multiple projects are launched at once, the interaction between these projects drives performance. You can’t underestimate the power of teams or individuals self-evaluating their performance compared with others.
Find the Magic Ratio
Programs must strike a fine balance between two key design components: classroom-driven intellectual horsepower and the use of next practice learning methods to create a memorable learning experience that brings the content to life. All too often, the learner-centered approach is off balance by front-loading three days of intellectual classroom content and pairing it with one hour of experience. By repeatedly connecting the learning to the doing, you power up the learning experience, create a memory stamp and access less-saturated learning space for everyone in the room. Part of the design and delivery craft is creating an ebb and flow to this ratio so the brain is repeatedly treated to a cycle of intellectual stimulation followed by a next practice method.
In the end, the delivery must engage the learner intellectually and emotionally to change them behaviorally and make a lasting learning impact. Putting the learner at the center of the learning experience as an owner and operator in the driver seat is a must. Prioritize and limit the objectives, get the impact of content by creating oxygen for the learner, connect the content to the learner-specific context through skilled orchestration and design in a next practice learning methodology to help drive sustainability in the learning.
I don’t mean it to sound like a paint-by-numbers exercise; there certainly is an art to the craft of development. We know how learning works in real life. But by incorporating these elements, I’m confident you will get the satisfaction of having someone look you in the eyes, shake your hand and say, “That didn’t suck!”