Making a long term difference in a short term world; realising the potential of learning and development

I’ve recently moved location and as I make new friends I’m inevitably asked ‘what do you do?’

I tell people I work as a learning and development consultant helping organisations to improve their performance, and individuals to increase their productivity and job satisfaction. Most of the time, I feel pretty good about this. However, there are other times when I wonder whether my work makes the positive difference I hope for and intend.

Picture the scene…it’s the end of a successful development workshop. The delegates are energised, the evaluation sheets tell a positive story, and everyone is shaking your hand and saying they want to stay in touch.

But will those same delegates be behaving differently at work in 6 months’ time? Will they still be thinking, saying and doing things in new ways that produce better results for all parties? These are the key questions, and ultimate test of any development intervention.

I could comfort myself that these doubts are understandable and commonplace among developers. After all, there are so many variables at play, and most of these are outside your control. This is why research suggests that only 10% of learning translates into behavioural change, and 12 months on 70% of delegates will have reverted back to old behaviours. These numbers clearly summarise the size of the challenge.

What’s more, in my experience, time pressures and cost constraints mean you seldom get the budget, or the time with the participants that you’d ideally like. So, what can a professional developer do to deliver sustained, productive change for the benefit of the organisation, the individual and their own self-respect? Put another way; how can you make a long term difference in a short-term world?

Here are three things I’ve learned, and that I believe will increase your chances of beating the odds when leading structured, development interventions.


Your relationship with the client

It’s essential to be open and honest with your client; you need to build a strong, authentic relationship with them. This involves asking some critical questions at the outset of the assignment. Things like:

  • What’s their personal rationale for this intervention?
  • How does it align with, and support the key drivers of the business?
  • What will be different if the intervention succeeds?
  • How will they track and measure progress, and what role is there for others in this process?

You must support them of course, but level with them too. It’s important to tell them the things they need, but may not want to hear. This might be about how hard change can be, how long it may take, or what it will demand of them. These questions will focus the client’s attention on their role, and help you to assess the prospects for success:

  • How curious and open are they to personal development?
  • How ready are they to commit the time and effort needed to let go of old habits and change their behaviour?
  • How do they feel about becoming a role model for the things they’re asking of others?

Building trust is, of course, a two-way street. You may need to take the risk of telling the client ‘I’m not sure’, or ‘I’ve never done it exactly this way before’. You need to be vulnerable too, if you want them to disclose what they’re really thinking and feeling.

Engaging participants so they have a sense of ownership

Creating a climate where the participants are motivated to engage with the development activity is vital. This starts with them understanding and accepting the need to learn, and to do some things differently.

Wherever possible, I try to talk with some team members prior to a development programme. I want to start to create a sense of ownership, and encourage them to take charge of their learning. One way to do this is to invite them to help prioritise and shape the content. This ensures that the focus of the intervention has a perceived usefulness in their eyes.

These conversations also help me to understand: the delegates’ attitude to learning; the history of development initiatives in this part of the organisation; and what will prove to them that their manager is serious about positive change.

It’s about treating participants respectfully, and recognising that learning and progress can’t happen unless they’re on side.  They need to be treated as active co-partners, and not as an audience to be entertained.

A learning design that immediately feels relevant, important and practical

I’m going to lay my cards on the table. Over my 40 year career, I’ve consistently found action learning to be the most effective development process. I know that learning design should be need and not process led, but my experience in off and on job settings is that action learning works.

As it starts with an introduction to the business need and personal development issue to be addressed, the approach immediately seems relevant and potentially useful to the learner.

It’s about finding practical ways forward with real and urgent challenges, and so it garners an emotional as well as intellectual commitment from the participant. What’s more, the developer is able to switch to a genuinely facilitative role, as their contribution shifts from ‘pushing’ content to supporting delegates to ‘pull’ the things they need to be more skillful and productive.

With the formal development process taking place in a group setting, it has the added advantage of building a community of learners. In the ‘set’, people not only discover solutions to real business challenges, but they also learn how to learn. They develop essential skills in questioning, listening, reflecting, choosing the best moment to offer a suggestion, and understanding how to access the resources they’ll need to continue progressing.

In summary, they acquire knowledge and insight about their own and others’ situations, and also the ability to continue to learn collaboratively in the workplace.


I’m sure that most development consultants reading this post will recognise the issues I’m raising. They may agree with my recommendations too. After all, it’s not rocket science, just good practice. But if we’re aware of the challenge, and we know what we could or should be doing, why are the long term results of our work so consistently disappointing?

This requires each of us to take a good, long look in the mirror. Where do you stand, and what do you need to do differently to increase your impact and make a long-term positive difference?

My colleagues at MAP Training are wholeheartedly in support of my views in this blog and at the heart of their philosophy on any development programme are the importance of understanding the business need; engaging delegates’ leaders in any development programme; any training being focussed on learning through doing (active learning); and the critical importance of embedding the learning through ongoing activity as part of the overall development journey (Embedding the learning)

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