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In 2002, Sir Dave Brailsford was appointed as the Coach for British Cycling team, which had won only one gold in last 76 years of Olympic history. Sir Brailsford was motivated to turnaround that story. Under Sir Brailsford’s leadership, the British Cycling team won 7 of the available gold medals in track cycling at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Olympics. The team also won 6 Tour de France events since 20121.
To achieve this, Sir Dave applied the ‘Theory of Marginal Gains’ to cycling – he broke down everything that a cyclist does going into a competition into small elements and then improved each element by 1%, resulting into significant aggregated increase in the overall performance.
Around the same time, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, in their classic book Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business Review Press, 2002) suggested that leaders need to step back, take time and visit their balcony from time to time to get a better perspective. A holistic view of the situation and not merely restrict it to their limited lens view.
In the spirit of these examples, let us look at the modern L&D context. Leaders today wonder how to improve overall organizational productivity and gains. With Millennials forming over 65% of the workforce, they become crucial stakeholders in the business, people, and L&D strategies of the organization. Millennials have actively been challenging almost all traditional theories and practices. This is no different for learning and development. Therefore, L&D leaders today need to adopt a different view and approach to organizational capability development and strategies. Gone are the days when L&D was just about the right topic (beyond coining topics with exciting adjectives), the right facilitator (beyond great communicators with great wit), and the right returns (business gains such as dollar savings or improved efficiency).
Technology, lifestyle, and life goals have changed drastically with the turn of the century. The millennial cohort has propelled a need for fast-paced, easily accessible, and in-time learning that can be implemented in real-time, for immediate gains. While this may seem like a tall order, Sir Brailsford strategy presents a clear use case for implementing the concept of Marginal Gains.
Let us look at two common scenarios:
Arpita, the L&D manager of a large organization is quite excited to host a 3-day off-site process training for new Sales Managers, to be conducted by a well-known Sales Trainer. Prateek, the Head of Sales, however, is unhappy about this schedule. He believes that the timing of this intervention is not right. “It’s the last week of the month and I can’t afford to let my team attend an off-site Induction”, he tells Arpita. The training goes ahead as scheduled, albeit with very few participants, comprised mostly of new hires. Additionally, one of the new joiners asks whether he has to understand the long training manuals available on the Intranet before getting on the job. An affirmative answer results in clear anxiety and disappointment on his face.
Sanjeev, the L&D head of ABC Inc. was disappointed with the feedback received on a Project Management training intervention which absorbed a large chunk of the annual training budget. – Participants felt that the workshop was overwhelming with too much theory and information whereas they expected to learn ‘how’ to deal with various aspects of project – budget, client, team, and stakeholders. The trainer had addressed only the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of influencing, reciting content from over a hundred powerpoint slides. The training company was of International repute, but the facilitator failed to engage the audience and did not meet their expectations.
In both these scenarios, the L&D managers did not manage to meet their training goals despite their best efforts. Because of these experiences, both L&D managers are plagued with the following doubts whenever they make crucial decisions for the organizations:
- How does this reflect on the overall efforts for organizational capability development?
- What would be the feedback for my L&D?
- How do I justify the ROI from these interventions?
The onslaught of digitalization and competitive business dynamics is not lost on L&D teams. Business leaders expect L&D initiatives to produce tangible business outcomes. L&D is no longer a mere hygiene factor. Millennial employees want and appreciate help with their tactical day jobs, but at their own pace and liberty. Finally, everyone wants learning to be more industry-specific, targeted at an issue, and be solution-oriented.
L&D teams have much to take away from the concept of Marginal Gains to prevent the issues faced by Arpita and Sanjeev, and deliver true business value:
- Address the need for immediacy:
Instead of making learners sit through day-long or week-long cognitive sessions that spoon feed important concepts, learning solutions can flip the process entirely in a way that allows learners to figure something out themselves (such as learning by quizzing) or even immediate implementation of learning (such as business impact projects).
- Address the need for engagement:
Instead of content heavy workshops, learning designs can incorporate hi-touch, experiential learning tools such as simulations, board games, and immersive activities that incorporate fun and competition.
- Address the need for practice and mastery:
Creating safe learning environments that encourage mistakes one can learn from not only reduces real-world errors, it also increases the learners’ confidence to innovate and experiment. Incorporating a life-like simulation allows learners to understand where they are going wrong, and also experiment on plausible alternatives.
- Address the need for continuous learning and higher retention:
Instead of pushing through a lot of content, information, and processes in one go and trying to meet the learning objective, learning can be broken down into smaller parts consumed over an extended time period.
- Address the need for feedback, tips and insights:
Instead of human-led interventions, where feedback and insights may be subject to bias, incorporating tech-based solutions backed by algorithms, provide objective and reliable analytics.
Digitization has allowed various practices and processes across functions to yield better results and returns to the organization. Such could also be the impact in the L&D function.
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