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ATD Blog

Opportunistic Risk: Signaling all L&D Professionals

Tuesday, November 19, 2013
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  • Action is revolutionary. Too many people plan, and then they plan some more. They keep doing the same thing, just working harder. Those working in the learning industry tend to focus all their time on curriculum design, learning objectives, engaging classrooms and WBT, and assessments. Unfortunately, many L&D professionals spend very little time connecting to strategic initiatives and outcomes. 

    But learning without action is just learning. Without the action, nothing changes. Enter opportunistic risk. 

    When times were tough, you didn’t find Batman hiding in his Batcave. You found him fighting crime—daring to make a difference in Gotham City. As learning professionals, the learning event is our Batcave. Our organizations are Gotham City. 

    It is time for you to get in your Batmobile and find out what matters most to your organization’s executive leaders. If you don’t already connect with your senior leaders, schedule time on their calendar and get to know what drives them. Only then can you help them succeed and add value to your organization. 

    Riddle me this 

    Batman was known as a great detective. This is an important factor because senior leaders may not be prepared to answer the question: How can the learning function assist in meeting the organization’s goals? So, if you can get 30 minutes of their time, act like a detective. Explore how you can help them reach success. Ask them what their goals are. Ask them why the goal is important. Ask them how they will know if they have reached their goal. 

    It is important to note that you must speak their language, not yours. The Riddler, Batman’s archenemy, was perplexing because he always spoke in riddles.  Senior leaders are not going to take the time to decipher your language. It is wise to speak to them in business terms—not “learning-eze” or what appears as riddles to them. 

    And respect their time by staying within your allotted meeting time. Next, thank them and let them know you will get back with them, armed with a plan to ensure performance success. This should at least pique their interest enough to review your plan.

    Batteries to power, turbines to speed

    Once you have obtained information from your senior leaders, you can start imagining solutions. To reach strategic goals, what behaviors need to happen? Once you identify behaviors, ask what the gap is in knowledge and skills. Then, and only then, decide how to serve the learning. 

    The next step is very important: Determine how you can best drive performance after learning has taken place. Our leaders want a comprehensive plan that focuses on results, not learning. They expect that you will supply great learning, but what they really want is performance outcomes that help them reach their goals. 

    You must be creative on how to get things done in a way that is different from what you have done in the past. It is not likely you will get more resources, and you can’t just keep working harder and maintain your sanity. L&D professionals have to be innovative in how to get the job done in less time, with less resource, but with better results. 

    Don’t fall into the trap that everything must be covered in the classroom. Statistics prove participants will only remember a fraction of what is presented. Today’s learners obtain information on the go. How do you reduce classroom time and increase informal learning and the availability of informal learning while obtaining the same if not better results? 

  • Can you cut some programs you currently offer that are not required by regulation or do not directly support your organization’s strategic initiatives? All programs are “good” but may not make you needed.
  • Can you reduce content? What do learners really need to know? Are you confusing them by giving them too much content at once?
  • Can you serve content in other ways? Learners want information at their fingertips. Can you provide content in a mobile app, in an online, just-in-time learning tool, job aids? 

This is a new way of thinking for L&D. We have focused on the learning event for so long. I am not only speaking to facilitators, but including curriculum designers and web developers as well. What really needs to be covered in the classroom or module? Truly examine that question. What can be made available in other ways? 

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We have to stop designing learning and start designing the entire learning experience. Included in your design should be peri-learning. Peri-learning is those activities, learning opportunities, and behavior reinforcers that help learners succeed. This could include such things as: 


  • Information and activities that prepare students to participate in not only learning but in changes that produce performance outcomes. Let managers know their role in the learning outcomes. Use posters, pre-requisite on-line modules that set the stage for what they will be learning, presentations at staff meetings, articles in newsletters, etc.
  • Post learning event follow-up such as reminders and reinforcement are crucial. It is a must to include post learning follow-up support that will reinforce the behaviors you are targeting that will produce results for your organization. Be creative in ways to drive performance. Can you utilize incentives, contests, manager reinforcement, peer reinforcement, job aids, facilitator rounding?
  1. Does this sound foreign, or even risky? If we keep doing things the same way we have in the past, we will not be needed. Not being needed is unnecessarily risky. Look at the opportunistic risk instead. Changing our actions to ensure outcomes is strategic opportunity. 

    As you put your plan together remember to ask: 

  1. “If I could do this any way I wanted to obtain the best outcomes, what would it look like?” Just because no one at your organization has done it that way before doesn’t mean it won’t work!
  2. Next, ask “Why not?” What is keeping you back? Is it the fear of risk? Remember, avoidance of risk creates risk.
  3. Next, ask, what is the worst thing that could happen? Can you live with that? Think through it. Plan for what might go wrong but work at making it go right.
  4. What is the best thing that could happen? Does it outweigh the outcome of doing nothing differently? Therein, you find your opportunisitic risk. 
  • Once you have a plan together that supports your company’s goals by addressing not only learning but driving performance, present that plan. Word of caution: your executives may not be receptive at first. This may feel foreign to them as well and they are not use to depending on you as a partner. You will have to earn this relationship. 

    Calling all caped crusaders 

    Now, if you are feeling a little outside your comfort zone, remember Batman had allies. Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler was one of only a few persons to know his secret identity. Alfred acted as father figure and mentor to Batman. Indeed, everyone needs a mentor—someone who knows your secret identity, grounds you, challenges you, someone that looks out for you, and helps you dream big. 

    Who is your mentor? Is it your manager, another leader in your organization, someone trusted outside the organization, perhaps a consultant? If you do not have a mentor, get one that understands opportunistic risk. They give you the strength to don the cape (so to speak) and step out of your comfort zone. They are also there to guide you and supply a reassuring hand. 

    Let’s explore another of Batman’s partners: Commissioner Gordon. The Commissioner was not always an advocate of Batman. As a matter of fact, he first saw Batman as a vigilante. In time, after Batman proved himself a worthy partner, Commissioner Gordon went to Batman at the first sign of need. Batman became his go-to person. Not because he left things to the way they were, but because he dared to step out. He took that opportunistic risk. 

    And let’s not forget Batman’s trusty sidekick Robin. Who do you trust to carry out your work—to partner with you in your endeavors? Batman started out as a lone star, but he quickly added a fellow crime fighter. 

    There is always more power in multiples. Gather your team around you to help you envision reaching performance. Gather those that will help reinforce learning and drive it to performance. This may be others in the learning arena but could also be middle managers, preceptors, or students who are early adopters. 

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    Bam! Kapow! Zlonk! 

    Finally, it is time for you to present your plan to organizational leaders—pointing out what is different about approach. Let them know what you need from them. Highlight how you will measure your progress and document leading indicators that you are on target. 

    Once you have presented your plan and received at least support for your plan, go for it! Put your plan in place and start working it. But be prepared that you won’t win every battle. You don’t have to win every time. Just act. 

    When you prepared your plan, you started with the end in mind—your organization’s strategic initiatives. You uncovered the behaviors needed to ensure success. You created a solution that would ensure learning. You planned on reinforcing behavioral performance by partnering and following-up with learners. 

    Now, you need to work your plan and measure your progress. Measure your results early and often, but don’t be afraid of the results! If you are not seeing the behaviors you expected, keep driving performance until you do. Remember, not doing anything creates risk. Driving performance, however, is opportunistic risk. 

    Along the way, manage up your results to your senior leaders. If you haven’t quite hit the mark, be honest but have a plan to engage learning until the goal is met. If your leaders see your persistence and start to see results, they will likely give you the support you need. 

    Holy learning, Batman! 

    Our companies are looking for true partners that will help them reach their goals. Most of your peers are still hiding behind their classroom training programs or armed with WBT’s. What will make your plan different, gain the attention of your leaders and make you a strategic partner?

  • Partner with your leaders. Seek to understand how to make them successful in their strategic endeavors. In other words, truly begin with the end in mind.
  • Present a complete plan that includes peri-learning—activities before during and after the learning event that ensures success through driving performance to outcomes.
  • Measure your progress and report your findings—good or bad. Then do something with the findings. Keep working your plan, regrouping where necessary, to reach your results. You only fail if you quit. 

If I have not yet convinced you to take opportunistic risk, let’s look at this in a different way. What if you choose to avoid the risk and stay in the Batcave? What if you just keep doing things they way you have always done them? Will you be perceived as valuable—or as adding value? Will you be recognized as a true partner? Will you be needed in another year? 

If you can’t answer yes to all of these questions, you can’t afford NOT to seek opportunistic risk. If Batman had not acted, the Joker, the Riddler, and Catwoman would surely have taken over Gotham City. Who is waiting to take over for you? Are you letting it happen because you are afraid to leave the Batcave? 

Without a doubt, leaving the Batcave involves some risk—but it is opportunisitic risk that focuses on outcomes, not just learning. So, what are you waiting for?

About the Author

Linda Hainlen is the director of business development at Sedona Learning Solutions, a Kirkpatrick Certified Facilitator, and an international author. She served as director of learning solutions for IU Health in Indianapolis, IN for 18 years.

Linda has over 25 years of proven experience as a training manager--including real world experience applying the Kirkpatrick principles. “Utilizing the Kirkpatrick Business Partnership Model truly transformed my results and elevated my division at IU Health to a strategic business partner in the organization. I am passionate about working with other organizations to help them elevate their results through partnering and obtaining sustainable outcomes.”

Linda is an engaging facilitator and presenter, who authentically and successfully connects with audiences by bringing concepts to life through sharing her own experiences from working in a highly regulated industry. Her practical and genuine approach inspires participants not only in thinking but in applying their newfound knowledge and skills.

Under Linda’s leadership, her division at IU Health was awarded the highly prestigious ASTD Best award in 2011. Linda has been published several times, including a white paper co-written with Jim Kirkpatrick on the topic of healthcare. Her ATD Infoline on “Designing Informal Learning” made the top 50 best sellers and was translated into 83 languages. Linda has been a speaker at several international conferences and has worked with companies from around the world to improve their effectiveness and achieve measurable outcomes. Industries served include higher education, corporate learning, nuclear, and healthcare. Sedona Learning is currently the only US Kirkpatrick Partners affiliate.

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