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June 2019
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TD Magazine

Avoid Mission Creep

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Avoid Mission Creep

Stay focused on the learning function's goals and resist the lure of broader objectives.

Merriam-Webster defines mission creep as "the gradual broadening of the original objectives of a mission or organization." While the term has previously applied exclusively to military operations and is common language in the nonprofit sector, it has a knack for weaving its way into countless industries that involve people with a vested interest in a stated goal or desired outcome. This interest can be time, money, position, notoriety, effort, energy—the possibilities are endless. Said interests create a sense of ownership and obligation to those goals, and more often than not, mission creep becomes the charismatic hitchhiker whose outstretched thumb is hard to resist.

But resist we must. L&D leaders often face the struggle of competing priorities. We must prevail in our efforts to do the work to ensure we meet our learners' needs despite competing priorities. We must learn to avoid mission creep.

Recently, I developed and led an L&D office for an agency comprising more than 700 employees. Within the first year, my team successfully designed and delivered two leadership development programs, initiated several informal learning initiatives, and improved employee motivation and morale within the agency. Because of those efforts, the L&D team set itself up for a bright future within the agency. How did we get there? Would we be able to maintain this trajectory? Would we be able to avoid the mission creep along the way?

Here's our journey.

Examine the learning demands

The first step to designing any learning program is to assess the learning needs. Whether it's adhered to or not, this is one of the golden rules for learning professionals. Several models that you use—such as ADDIE, SAM, and LLAMA—begin with assessment. It is in this assessment phase that you learn the environment, origin of the request, requester, audience, and intended goals and outcomes.

A series of data collection methods such as interviews, surveys, and leadership conversations reveal learning demands. As you compete with the clock, time-sensitive resources, and the overall hunger for a product, it is important to not lose sight of the assessment phase's value. It is within this phase that you gather information and build relationships.

Within the first few months with the agency, I had to resist self-imposed mission creep; I needed to bypass the impulse of getting to work and delivering a product to merely silence the covert (and sometimes overt) whispers of "What's she going to do?" This impulse to answer the whispers would have caused me to jump in and implement initiatives and programming based solely on the leadership demands. However, in doing so, I would have run the risk of missing the ultimate destination, which was underlying in the potential learners' question: "Will she provide what I need?" Truth be told, I didn't know what the learners needed. I knew what their leaders had told me, but I had not had the opportunity to hear from the source, the end user—a major stakeholder—as to what need I had to meet.

So, I began connecting with as many employees as I could reach, at all organizational levels, to hear what they needed. And as you probably have guessed, the needs were slightly different. It is within these lunches, tea and coffee breaks, and doorway and elevator conversations that I gained insight into the learners' true, practical needs that I could then pair with the requesters' high-level organizational need.

Being intentional about hearing all the stakeholders' voices enables learning professionals to gain credibility and trust and add tremendous value throughout the learning function's life cycle and provide better company than any potential mission creep.

Understand the function learning plays in your organization

While completing the Association for Talent Development's Managing Learning Programs Certificate Program, participants were told: "The role of the learning function is to support the organization to address critical issues, provide the capabilities needed to avoid or resolve problems, and to achieve goals. But a learning leader with an agenda does more than that. Such a person serves the organization in ways it doesn't even realize, let alone ask for. Their agenda is not derived from organizational goals; it is based on their own deeply held beliefs."

I have led several learning programs for different organizations. And what each of those experiences provided is the unique opportunity to hear and understand the function that learning has played, should play, and will play in each respective organization. For some, the learning function served as a compliance effort; for another, a source of revenue; and in another, just a box to check. In each case, it was important to employ a different type of assessment—a self-assessment. Learning professionals must ask "Does the intended function align with my own deeply held beliefs?" Such inventory can ground you and safeguard against mission creep.

Two critical questions serve as my self-assessment while I journey through this work:

  • Do I feel good about what I am doing?
  • Does what I am doing align with my personal values?

It is vital to have these conversations (and any additional conversation unique to you) with yourself, mentors, supports, and sometimes the client system and stakeholders. Doing so will align expectations for the learning program's and organization's overall success.

Use teachable moments

Nelson Mandela once said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

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For learning professionals, it becomes almost a superpower to find the opportunity for learning in most things. The opportunity may not always show up in a formal classroom setting or through formal instruction, but it is in the day-to-day conversations or routine that you receive the insight to "change the world" (or the work world).

Therefore, after the assessment and aligning conversations, work with the client to craft a shared language regarding the learning function's role. This shared language ensures the learning function's mission, vision, and values are understood in the way they are intended. Whether it is compliance, revenue, performance, community revitalization, or all the above, there are opportunities to use the fruits of this labor to accomplish the learning function mission throughout the organization and beyond. Developing a shared language is an ongoing process that requires intention and time, which results in better understanding.

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Proactively create synergy. As you develop and deploy learning initiatives, measurable impact is in aligning initiatives with the organization's business. L&D work cannot be siloed from the overall mission, theme, or goal. Maintaining developed relationships enables learning professionals to remain on the pulse of the business and to pair learning efforts appropriately.

Create your learning narrative. In this current culture, it's so important to create your own narratives. The same holds true for the learning professional's work. Use all available platforms (for example, intranet, team meetings, and social media) to share the learning function's impact.

With help from the communications team, my L&D team created weekly email blasts, social media content, posters, and signage to share the team's mission, vision, and learning opportunities. We established Training Tuesdays—employees looked forward to an L&D tip, announcement, or desk-aid each Tuesday. Additionally, my team and I coordinated attendance at team meetings to share the program vision and solicit feedback and learning needs from the various departments represented in the agency.

Use learners' voices. After all, we do our work with learners in mind. The learner's voice is the true reveal of the learning function and the process. Learners' voices are heard via words provided on evaluations as well as skills and interpersonal interactions on the job. Use these voices to inform your work. Reflect on them as you create or revise programs. Use them as you report outcomes to leadership. Often, more people are listening or have access to the message around the learning function's role and value than you may have intended. Thus, ensure your learning function's narrative communicates your deeply held belief rather than the mission creep.

Beware of the creeps

The charismatic creep with the outstretched thumb did appear along my L&D team's journey. As mentioned, I almost became my own creep. In addition, mission creep also surfaced in the form of flattery. We were told: "Your team is doing so well. Let's assign this new program to your office" and "Your team's relationship-driven work would benefit the X team. Can you take on their project?" Picking up this mission creep would have broadened my team's original objective and caused us and our mission to spiral. However, with the solid assessment data to support work in the team's defined lane, with the learners' voices communicating the team's deeply held beliefs, and with the value added to the work and environment, the L&D team continued to cruise along until the next assessment revealed another, appropriate learning journey.

Mission creep is inevitable, so expect it to keep surfacing. While doing so, however, keep this in mind: A learning leader with an agenda serves the organization in ways it doesn't even realize, let alone ask for. Their agenda is not derived from organizational goals; it is based on their own deeply held beliefs.

May you lead as deeply and meaningfully as you believe.


Manage Scope Creep in Individual Projects

In project management, scope creep is the number 1 killer of success. Inevitably, you'll start a project with certain parameters, and then it begins to grow, morphing into something bigger. This type of scope creep usually doesn't happen with a big decision or a loud confrontation; it happens quietly, one small concession at a time. Someone you like asks you to make a simple addition to your work that won't take you any time at all. Uh-huh. Before you know it, your tiny, simple project has become mission critical and due tomorrow.

Who creates scope creep? We all do. Project managers blame the stakeholders for changing their minds, but constant changes in business dictate that the stakeholders will have new requirements throughout the project. Stakeholders blame project team developers—IT programmers who grow enamored of some fancy new technology that isn't really imperative, or graphic designers who spend additional hours unnecessarily tweaking cool animation. And, ironically, project managers can expand the scope by doing a good job of communicating, because better information helps stakeholders think of factors they didn't consider before. And, you know what happens then.

Scope creep isn't a bad thing. But it must be managed. In fact, managing the change in scope as a project progresses is an important part of the manager's role. Scope will evolve continually. Many people have the impression that project management means controlling or eliminating scope creep—but that's completely wrong. If a project is going to continue to provide the business benefit detailed in the business objectives, it has to evolve over time. If you could finish a project in several minutes or even a few days, you may have a fighting chance of starting and ending with the same scope, but most projects take much longer than that. And the longer the project takes, the more the scope will change, of course.

Scope creep, when managed well, is a productive change process, ensuring that the project ultimately will meet business needs. For everyone to be in agreement about what changes have been made and what the impact of these changes will be requires that:

  • the scope is defined and agreed to before the project starts
  • any changes to the scope are added to the scope definition and agreed to before they are scheduled
  • changes to the scope are reflected in realistic changes to deadlines, budget, and people time.

Adapted from 10 Steps to Successful Project Management (ATD Press).


Navigating the Learning Function Journey

Starting point: Learning development request.

  1. Examine the learning demands by using assessment tools to gather information on all stakeholders' needs. Don't forget self-assessment. Possible mission creeps: catering learning goals to demands that are not beneficial to learners and reacting to your own anxiety to get to work to produce a final product.
  2. Understand the function learning plays in your organization to address critical issues. Provide the capabilities needed to avoid or resolve problems and to achieve goals. Don't forget to have alignment conversations with yourself and stakeholders. Possible mission creeps: assuming your learning professional perception of the learning function is the same as the organization's perceived function of learning and then crafting your learning agenda based solely on organizational goals.
  3. Use teachable moments to ensure the learning function's mission, vision, and values are understood in the way they are intended. Possible mission creep: allowing others to communicate the mission, vision, and beliefs around your work.

Arrive at destination: Lifelong learning.

About the Author

Nina M. Johnson’s expertise includes program start-up and development and training design and delivery for nonprofit, government municipalities, and higher education.

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