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ATD Blog

To Build Effective Training Start With Creative Tension

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Research shows that only one in every four senior managers understands that training is critical to business results. About three-quarters of the nearly 1,500 senior managers of organizations around the world are dissatisfied with the training and development efforts they have in their companies.

As a training and development professional for more than 15 years, I’m concerned by this data, but I understand that the situation is not a fluke. It represents the reality that many development actions do not have the expected effect and do not generate the necessary changes and results. Let's explore how we can change this scenario.

According to my experience, we need to start with the why before we approach how and what to do. And this approach is centered on mental models.

This term had already been used in 1943 by Kenneth Craik, but it was with Peter Senge in his remarkable book The Fifth Discipline that it gained breadth. Simply put, we can define mental models as "images, stories that influence our way of understanding the world and acting on it." I like to explain mental models using the iceberg metaphor. Our behaviors are the observable part of the iceberg, just the tip of it. Now, below the water level (and out of reach of the eyes), there is a large submerged part that sustains all the rest. Mental models are the basis of our behaviors; they sustain, shape, and create behaviors (even if unconsciously).

But what does this have to do with training and development? The answer is everything! As talent development and HR practitioners, we have the ability to identify problems. In fact, we are very good at seeing what needs improvement and suggesting solutions. The problem is that in creating our solutions we are generally looking at the tip of the iceberg. We are looking at the behaviors we want to adjust, develop, or change. We are thinking about theories, tools, and methodologies. These things are important, but we need to understand what causes a particular behavior. And if we want to start from the causes of a behavior, we inherently need to look for the mental models that are serving as a basis for such behavior.

Many training events are conducted without really being able to convince the participants that there is a sensible reason why they should be there—a strong enough reason for them to leave their desks for a day, accumulating emails and tasks. The why, as Simon Sinek pointed out years later, is critical. It is not just a belief, it is science. According to Sinek, despite the importance of what and how, it is by connecting to the why that humans find a real meaning for their lives and are capable of greater achievements and behavioral changes.


Often, when structuring our development initiatives, we introduce some tools that in practice can be useful and everything seems good to us. However, to be highly effective, we should start by encouraging each participant to find out for themselves why the training is important.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you build effective development actions that begin with mental models that demonstrate why participants should engage with training:

Step 1: Help the participants imagine a better version of themselves.
Before starting with the tools, theories, and other didactic resources (which all have their importance, do not doubt that), help the participants connect to the best version they can have of themselves. According to Peter Senge, we must continually learn to see the desired direction (our goal, or our vision of the future). If a participant enters the room not knowing how they might leave the room in the end better than when they entered, the development action we are proposing will hardly catch their attention.


Step 2: Equipped with a better vision of themselves (or vision of the future), help the participants assess their current state.
The juxtaposition of our objective (what we desire) with a clear image of reality (where we are in relation to what we want) generates what Senge called the "creative tension": the force that connects the present state and the desired state. As the term "tension" might suggest anxiety or stress, it may be misunderstood; but creative tension is not a negative thing. It is the force that comes into play the moment we identify a goal at odds with current reality. It awakens in everyone the natural tendency to seek change or solutions to the problems. During the training, promote the chance for the individual to evaluate their gaps and weaknesses. Tools such as evaluations and exchange of feedback can greatly enhance this moment. Raise the awareness of the other about what prevents them from achieving the goals or a vision for the future.

Step 3: It’s time for theory!
By having in mind the best version of themselves and understanding the desired state (and what obstacles hinder the accomplishment of this improved version), participants have the why necessary to start action. From that point, the participant may have more contact with the tools and theories. It is at moments like these that the tools and theories will be a perfect match, and training will have the space, the desire, and the openness necessary to fulfill its function. It is from this moment that by presenting concepts and ideas, we can contribute potentially to the transformation of people and, consequently, to behavioral change.

Want to learn more? Join me at the ATD 2018 International Conference & Exposition for the session, Effective T&D Initiatives: Start With Mental Models.

About the Author

Arthur Diniz ia the founder and CEO of Crescimentum, one of the most respected Leadership Development companies in Brazil. Author of the book “Líder do Futuro” (Leader of the Future ) which sold more than 50.000 units in Brazil and is currently been sold in Portugal . Holds an MBA from Columbia Business School in New York and a certificate in "Leadership in High Performance Teams" by the Center for Creative Leadership and in “Reinventing Leadership” by Kellogg. Served as an senior executive for 15 years at Price Waterhouse, Citibank, Unibanco, Deutsche Bank and Santander. At Santander , he was the Strategic Planning Director for a US$300 million business . Had several articles published in the magazines Você S/A, Vencer, T&D and Professional e Negócios. Arthur Diniz was elected in December 2001 of the 20 CEOs of the Future in a selective process coordinated by KornFerry, Voce S/A Magazine and FIA-USP. Has an International Certificate in Coaching by Lambent and Erickson College, Canada.

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