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The Stone Soup Approach to Training

One of the hardest parts of our job as learning and talent development professionals is getting buy-in and support for products and services. Without acceptance, many great deliverables are never used. In some situations, the problem is trust, because we are viewed as outsiders. Some people simply don’t want to change. They see change as a disruption and something that is going to cause them too much work when, in fact, we are only trying to do our jobs and help them. There are other people who think their way is the best way. They come into our organizations with tools and initiatives that worked great in their past companies and they want to use what has proved successful in the past. Sometimes I hear, “That’s great, but that’s not how we do it here.” Training is a simple concept, so why should anyone really need our help?

Anytime I get pushback to an idea or new project, I am reminded of the story “Stone Soup.” There are many derivations of this story, but the version I am most familiar with is the one read aloud on Captain Kangaroo. (Yes, I know I just dated myself.) It’s about three hungry soldiers who wanted a good meal and a place to spend the night. When villagers saw them coming, they locked up everything they had because they were suspicious that the soldiers would want something to eat and they didn’t have anything to spare. The soldiers really didn’t mean them any harm, but they needed their help and found a way to disarm the suspicious villagers to get what they needed. I believe this story perfectly illustrates what we face with many new projects.

In the story, the soldiers go from house to house asking for food and a place to stay but they are turned down each and every time. How often does this happen to us? Regardless of whether we are located within a facility or are in a support capacity external to the facility, we are often viewed as the soldiers. Everyone is busy and here we come again, asking for time and information. Just as in the story, time is in short demand. Trust is also an issue, because people are afraid of someone from the outside asking for what they have and uncertain of what we are going to do with it.

Trust is often what keeps SMEs from fully giving us what they know, because they are afraid we will somehow misuse it. Or if they give us what they know, then perhaps one day we won’t need them. Even when we ask people for best practices, they are reluctant to share what they’re doing, as if doing so will take away from them and their success. 

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As the story continues, one of the soldiers says that because everyone has so little, then they will just have to make a pot of stone soup. They ask for a pot, and then some water, and then three smooth stones. It’s at this point that they have intrigued the villagers with a sense of curiosity, and everyone gathers around. Bit by bit, the soldiers the villagers how much better the soup would be if they could have a little of this or that. In the beginning, they ask for small things like water, salt, and pepper. As curiosity (and trust) increases, they ask for a bit more.

Just like the soldiers, we bring our knowledge into every situation, such as how to make soup, but we rely on our internal customers for everything else. We must work with them to help us identify the correct deliverable, most effective format or delivery method, and SMEs for the intricacies of the content. Many times, the client is someone other than the end user, and I find this most often puts us at odds with the people with whom we must work. Just as the soldiers, we have to put them at ease, except in our case we are also here to help. 

The story concludes with everyone having contributed to a wonderful feast. The soldiers have alleviated the villagers’ fears and coaxed them into sharing what they had, and in the end everyone gained from the experience. Collaboration is truly the best recipe for any positive outcome. We all have something to give once we can get past our concerns. This story also reminds me of Bob Pike’s second Law of Adult Learning that people never argue with their own data. There have been times that, when faced with resistance, I have tried to do everything by myself, but that never works well. It turns into “Melissa’s project,” and then the end user won’t own it or use it. Just as with the soup, we need multiple contributions for the best deliverables.

Whenever I run into resistance with a new project, I think about this story. I know I can help, but I can’t do it alone. Bit by bit, I find ways to put people at ease. The best way to do this is to recognize everyone’s contributions along the way. People know what they have and what they are good at. It’s our job to be sure we recognize and thank them for what they have to offer. I need what they have, and when we work together, we can create something awesome together.

© 2017 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
ATD Field Editor Melissa Westmoreland is the training and development leader for the lumber division of Georgia-Pacific Corporation in Atlanta, and is responsible for supporting talent development for 16 locations across the United States. Westmoreland has more than 20 years of production, quality, compliance, and T&D experience in food, packaging, and wood products manufacturing. She has developed or supported talent development solutions for operations, leadership, and craft skills. She has been an active member of ATD since 1995. You can email her directly at MelissaAWestmoreland@gmail.com.
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