There are a few words in the English language that set my teeth on edge.
Membury (the name of one of the services on the M4).
Work is also full of words and phrases I never want to hear again. I’m afraid to say “Learning & Development” (with the ampersand) is one of them. I wish we had something better than “Human Resources”. And any variation on Slide Pack, Slide Deck or “Will you bring your slides on a stick?” makes my lips curl a bit.
But don’t get me started on “takeaways” (unless it’s Friday night and it includes poppadums).
In every profession, terminology becomes habit. Every now and then someone coins a new phrase that is refreshing and relevant for a while. And then we overuse it to such an extent that it loses its meaning.
It felt like the dawn of a new age when Personnel became HR and when Training became L&D. But that was all a long time ago.
And it isn’t just that I have a low boredom threshold. Habitual language erodes our ability to think for ourselves. When I first heard someone talk about “brand architecture” I was excited. It made me look differently at the framework that exists around a brand. When someone first talked about taking the “meta position” it challenged my brain, opening up a range of possibilities about the distance from which I observe. But we get used to language. We are no longer inspired by it. Rather than opening up doorways to look at an idea in a new way, it becomes a lazy shorthand which leads to lazy thinking.
And the concept of “takeaways” is an example of lazy thinking.
No proposal is complete it seems without a bullet-pointed list of takeaways. But I’m afraid I cannot oblige.
I get where the desire to list takeaways comes from. It’s about attempting to link the activity to some kind of value. People walk in to a workshop at one level of capability and you need them to walk out at a higher level of capability. And I’m sure that when the concept was new it forced trainers to consider what this new level of capability was going to be.
But my problem with the term today is three-fold.
Firstly, the environment that spawned the concept of takeaways was one where we assumed that growing people’s capabilities meant teaching them what they needed to know. In advance of the intervention (oh yes, another word I’d like to ban) I, the trainer, should be able to specify what the individuals taking part will learn. They will walk out with a set of principles, tools or skills that started off in my head and ended up in theirs.
But that’s all a bit 1990s isn’t it? Especially when it comes to that illusive concept of “Leadership”, is it really a good investment for you to pay me to spend a day, a week or 6 months downloading principles, tools or skills in to the brains of the participants which they will then take away with them?
If that’s what we’re going to do, why don’t I just give them a book to “take away”? It’s a much more cost-effective way to dump information in to a brain.
Secondly, takeaways tell you what the participants will know, maybe what they will be able to do. But they don’t tell you what the impact is going to be on the business. Takeaways, for me, are a bit like “happy sheets” (yuck). They tell you what happened on the day but they don’t tell you anything about what happened after. All this emphasis on takeaways distracts the sponsors and the designers of the programme from what really matters – business impact.
But my third problem with takeaways is even bigger than my first two. Because when I am asked to list takeaways it is starkly obvious to me that there is a far more fundamental issue in the business than the one I have been asked to address - I have a sudden realization that the company is still operating by Industrial Age ideas about the role people play in their business.
The Industrial Age approach is to treat people like machines – inputs and outputs. You develop them by upgrading their programming, by pumping new information in to them so that they will perform a more sophisticated series of operations.
But in our modern, 21st century world we need something rather more complex from our people – their initiative, their hearts, their humanity.
Today, the only differentiator between your company and anyone else in your market is the unique DNA of the people who exist in your business. At this moment in time no one else has them. Only you. Your technology can be replicated. Your pricing can be undercut. But no one else can have your people. So your business succeeds when you are able to tap as much of the latent talent of your people as possible.
And you don’t liberate that capacity in people by pushing them through a training factory that inputs concepts in to their brains that are freely available to everyone in your industry, and have been for 20 years, like you are programming a computer.
Instead you squeeze out as much of what’s already inside them as possible. You want them to reveal every bit of potential they have to be imaginative, business savvy, productive and dedicated. You don’t want them to leave any of that behind when they walk through the doors of your offices. You don’t want any of that to lie dormant within them. When you do it’s simply an advantage you give to another company in your sector that has found a better way than you to capitalize on the talent it’s employed.
You liberate capability by unlocking passion, by giving people the scope to test and to try out, by providing spaces for them to think together and grow as a result of that opportunity to think. How exactly can I (or anyone) tell you what the takeaways are going to be of that?
To liberate the person in 3D absolutely requires investment. You still need your leadership programme. But while that leadership programme might look similar from the outside to the one you were running 5 years ago (perhaps it is a series of workshops over a series of months with cohorts – urgh - of people taking part) the content will be dramatically different. It should be very light on input, models and tools and focused instead on discussion, debate, thinking, reflecting, deepening relationships and playing with concepts that come from a diverse range of sources. Frankly, if the designer and facilitator of the programme can list takeaways it’s the wrong sort of programme altogether.
But once we scrap the idea of takeaways we can open our minds even wider. It’s not just about letting go of the need to pack the training agenda with models and tools, but recognizing that liberating the talent in people requires shifting the business away from people as cogs in a machine to a place where people can bring their whole selves to work.
Growing your people has to be accompanied by determined efforts to look at the whole business and re-think every structure, process, system or behavior that inhibits people being themselves. It’s not enough to grow your people. You have to create space in the company big enough for your people to grow in to.
And that’s a job that stretches the most generous definition of “Learning & Development” (with or without the ampersand) and even “Human Resources”. Which suggests these terms are ripe for a rethink too.
About Blaire Palmer
“Agent provocateur”, Blaire Palmer, is a former BBC Today programme journalist who, for the last 15 years, has been coaching and provoking CEOs and leadership teams to step up and drive change in their organisations.
The author of 3 books on leadership and success, Blaire was one of the first accredited executive coaches in Europe. Blaire founded That People Thing in 2012 and now works with clients including Roche, Airbus, Mattel, DX and Manchester United, designing and delivering programmes that bring about sustainable change in leadership and culture with measureable commercial benefit.
Direct, challenging, warm and funny, Blaire is also is a keynote conference speaker, addressing audiences around the world about how leadership is changing in the 21st century.