ATD Blog

Managing Training and Development as Experiments in which Failure is an Option

Monday, March 25, 2013

Almost by definition, training and development is about helping people acquire new knowledge and skills. Venturing into new areas is scary, with a real fear of failure. So, position those ventures as experiments instead of must-win crusades. When that happens, failure is a foreseeable outcome of the experiment and not a black mark on anyone’s record – especially if people have the permission and fortitude to call the failure fast, capture the learning, and move on.

Drawing on learning from the Triangle Startup Factory’s Chris Heilvy in one of my recent articles on, Want to Fail Fast? Do These Three Things, the suggestions are 1) talk to customers, 2) test and 3) make early sales.

Let’s apply those to training and development:

Talk to Customers

Going back to the old Total Quality SIPOC tool, all work is a process:

Suppliers => Input => Process => Output => Customers


Beginning with the end in mind means beginning with the customers in mind. Don’t start by designing training and development programs. Start by talking to your internal and external customers to understand what problems they need solved. Then, armed with knowledge about their needs, you can design far better training and development programs, experiences and experiments faster.

Run a Test that Validates Your Thinking

If you’re creating a brand new training and development program, you’re guessing, experimenting – as you should. You know you’re going to make mistakes. Just make them fast and have a mechanism in place to get meaningful feedback quickly.


This doesn’t mean you have to develop the whole program and then test it. Test one module. Test a prototype. Test the program with a small group. Run the experiment, hoping it will work so you can expand it, but open to it’s failing in which case you’ll shut it down and move on to the next experiment.

Generate Sales Earlier Rather Later

Of course, ideas are important. They are the first step to any great innovation. But they are “not worth (anything) until someone pulls a dollar out of their pockets.” (Chris Heilvy’s words) Too many people wait until their program is perfect before trying to sell. Don’t wait. Sell what you’ve got and improve as you go. Get someone to invest money and or time in utilizing your program as a way to check that it’s got real value.

Every article I write is an experiment. Some work. Some don’t. Some get read by a lot of people and generate comments, conversations and learning. Some fall on deaf ears. It’s all good. I learn from the failures and improve my writing skills. Others gain knowledge from the ones that work. As long as someone is increasing knowledge or skills, the experiments are worthwhile. Hope you learn from this particular experiment. If not, that’s okay. I will.

About the Author

George Bradt has a unique perspective on transformational leadership based on his experience as a business leader, consultant, and journalist. He progressed through sales, marketing, and general management roles around the world at companies including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and J.D. Power’s Power Information Network spin-off as chief executive. Now he is a principal of CEO Connection and managing director of the executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis.

George is a graduate of Harvard and Wharton (MBA), co-author of four books on onboarding, including The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan, and co-author of a weekly column on, The New Leader’s Playbook.

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