Creative Writing, Learning & Training, Work

“Nailed It!” Why organisational learning needs to change

Have you seen the show “Nailed It!” on Netflix?

Home bakers with a terrible track record take a crack at re-creating edible masterpieces for a $10000 prize. It’s part reality contest, part hot mess.

Nailed It is a great analogy for problems with much organisational learning today, and why we need to change the model.

Contestants on Nailed It are enthusiastic amateurs aiming to recreate professionally made cakes.

The contestants are shown an example of what they’re aiming to bake. It’s usually beautifully finished, a complex and professional cake.

A professionally made cake on Nailed It

Contestants are given a recipe, all of the raw materials to create the cake, and told to go for it.

They’re able to make use of a panic button which buys them three minutes of one-on-one coaching with a pro, but other than that, they’re largely left on their own and simply judged at the end of the task.

The results are, predictably, terrible.

Cake fail

Nailed It is funny. It’s funny precisely because of the poor skills that contestants have – that despite having the recipe and all of the materials to make the cake, they end up failing miserably anyway.

It’s definitely not funny when organisations leave learners to do the same.

You don’t become an expert by simply reading a recipe.

Most of us want to have the opportunity to become great at what we do. But over-reliance on formal training courses means that organisations send the message that courses make experts when that’s simply not the case.

Let’s use management training as an example. As a new manager, you might go on some sort of training course which gives you a grounding in management theory. You hear how to delegate, how to give feedback, how to manage change, absence etc. Essentially, you learn all of the ingredients in the recipe for becoming a competent manager.

The course finishes, and you go back to work. But at this point, support normally drops off. Many are left to become skilled through the school of hard knocks, with awkward and difficult experiences along the way and with little support or structure for analysing those experiences.

Those difficult experiences are ripe with opportunity for learning. So it’s a mistake for organisations to focus their time, resources and effort on training courses as a vehicle for learning, without exploring ways they can ease that journey to competence which occurs after the training course has finished.

And that journey to competence really should not be ignored. Anyone learning a new skill moves through four stages of competence:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: When you don’t know about a particular skill so you’re automatically bad at it.
  2. Conscious incompetence: When you know more about a skill, realise you’re still fairly terrible at it, but you’re trying to learn.
  3. Conscious competence: When you’re better at that skill, but it still takes a lot of thought to do it.
  4. Unconscious competence: When you have become skilled so performing that skill becomes tacit, or second nature.

Once we apply this model to skill development, we can start to understand how tricky becoming competent really is – and why training courses alone just won’t get us there.

Here’s an example. When I knew very little about giving feedback, my feedback was candy-coated and useless.

I learned the basics on a training course, and graduated to shakily giving slightly better feedback with models like STAR to guide me. (Thankfully, it was this course that taught me that the “feedback sandwich” method I’d heard about wasn’t a good method to use.)

But I was robotic, and wooden, and I wasn’t able to react well to the curveballs that happen while working with people. I didn’t know what exactly to do if someone vehemently disagreed, or started crying, or if they just didn’t want to put in the effort to improve. I didn’t know how to handle the logistics of feedback – private or public – how much to document, how to track progress, how to keep momentum and encourage while holding others accountable. I didn’t know how to give feedback to people who were my friends as well as being people I managed. I didn’t know how to balance my personal style with the style of my organisation, and how practically to adjust to the styles of others.

I was absolutely like those contestants on Nailed It. My training course had given me the recipe for managing, enough of an introduction to the basic concepts to have a vague idea of what to do. But baking that up into something that resembled competent management was a totally different ballgame.

It took me a long time to get better at giving feedback. Getting to the point of practising my new-found skills in an intuitive way took years. And it took even longer to than that to consider myself fully competent, which was around when I figured out how to critique and combine approaches across disciplines (Like, what happens if I mash up STAR with GROW while doing the 5th level of listening to turn my feedback into something more like an awesomely empathetic coaching session?)

That was when I started to really enjoy managing!

My management journey is just one example. Think about how sales people learn to sell, how executives learn to balance priorities, how customer service reps learn to empathise – the journey is the same.

The process of becoming competent at any complex skill is ultimately all about developing the ability to identify, control and evaluate thousands of tiny situational variables which affect your outcome – and doing so in an effortless, second-nature way, without your head exploding from trying to do too much at once.

True competence is complex, innate and situation-specific. Because of this, generally-applicable theories and perspectives shared in many organisational training courses, whether face-to-face or online, will normally only get you to step 2 of the competence model I shared above.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a well-crafted training course that demonstrates the basics, provides differing perspectives, gives great opportunities for networking, and provides pathways for skill development after the event.

But courses too often neglect skill development “after the event” – meaning that the majority of that difficult journey to competence is ignored.

If we want to shorten learning curves and improve effectiveness, we must support skill development after the training course much more than the course itself.

The world is moving too fast for us not to evolve our processes and our thinking about what it takes to develop the experts who will keep our organisations healthy. Looking at LinkedIn’s talent research for 2018, half of today’s most in-demand skills weren’t even on the list three years ago. It just isn’t good enough now to present your employees with content they can find anywhere on the internet and say they’re trained.

We must support our employees in learning better and faster if we are to keep pace with technology, social change, geopolitical influence – all while keeping ahead of the competition.

And we’re certainly not going to do that in organisations who don’t create the basic conditions for good learning to occur – namely, doing it on-the-job, in real-time, with support from others, in language that makes sense. (I’ll explore all of those things more in later blog posts.)

While the journey to competence is littered with mistakes, it is possible to build processes which allow us all to fail better, allowing you to rescue your employees from feeling like they’re on a perpetual episode of Nailed It running 9-5 every weekday of their lives.

And if we care at all about helping our employees feel like they really have Nailed It in their jobs, we need to change how we think about organisational learning. And that change is needed now.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

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