If you started with the end in mind, you began your project with a holistic set of metrics linked directly to your organization’s strategic objectives. Each component of the project was designed to meet those metrics, from the content and topic areas selected for the training, to the delivery methods and learning activities. Because of your careful planning, you should easily be able to identify the impact your training has had and to map it back to specific components of your program. Your goals in this final project stage are to communicate those successes, but also to use these results to ensure the success of your next project.
Our 3 final recommendations for project success will help you showcase your successes and prepare for future successes. Although these recommendations are important at the end, try to apply them throughout the project as well.
1. Listen to your learners
Listen to and learn from training participants throughout the launch. Actively seek their input via interviews, surveys and observations. Learners can identify needs, benefits and pain points you didn’t know they had, which will help you target your solution more effectively. According to a study conducted by the Wall Street Journal, effective product launch teams are masters at communicating regularly with learners/customers throughout the development process: “The successful innovators in our study kept in close contact with customers throughout the development process. More than 80 percent of the top performers said they periodically tested and validated customer preferences during the development process, compared with just 43% of bottom performers.”
The feedback you receive from learners throughout the project shows you how to communicate more effectively with learners and shapes your training design. It also offers directions for post-training follow-up, such as a job aid or performance support activity that could help learners apply what they learned, and for future training projects.
To make these conversations with learners effective, it’s necessary to filter out the unhelpful surface chatter (i.e., comments such as, “Why didn’t you include this feature” or “This training is great, but…”) and search for richer insights. For example, HubSpot recommends you listen for learners’ pain points. To do this, “Push yourself to go deeper, ask better questions, and you’ll get better answers.”
How do you ask better questions? Stephanie Vozza at FastCompany suggests using “why” questions and drilling down at least three times because the learner’s first answer won’t go deep enough. According to Vozza, “The process is a variant of cause-and-effect thinking, and through a series of ‘whys’ the questioner can drill down to a specific level.” For this approach to be effective, you don’t need to talk to every member of your audience. In fact, in Pain Killer Marketing, Henry Devries and Chris Stiehl say 12 to 15, one-on-one interviews will reveal about 80% of all possible learner responses.
2. Evaluate/debrief with the team
Like listening to your learners, debriefing with your team is important throughout a project. No project goes exactly as planned and there are always opportunities to tighten and refine your processes. An effective debrief offers an opportunity to pause and reflect, allowing the team to learn from the current project before rushing to the next.
Debriefs should focus on what actually happened, rather than what could have happened, and should focus on a few simple questions: What were your project goals? What did you accomplish? What led to these results? What could you improve in future projects? Encourage open feedback and give team members time to share their stories.
At Harvard Business Review, Marilyn Darling, Charles Parry and Joseph Moore warn that post-project debriefs (they call them After-Action Reviews or AARs) too often become “pro forma wrap ups,” producing static information that’s filed away in a management report and has no real impact on the organization or future projects. According to Darling, debriefs are ineffective when they’re used as a “noun” (i.e., a meeting, a report or a postmortem) that captures lessons learned and disseminates these lessons to other teams.
Instead, debriefs should be viewed as “verbs,” as “a living, pervasive process that explicitly connects past experience with future action.” The focus should be on increasing individual learning and performance so the debrief itself becomes a growth opportunity for team members. As Darling points out, “The capacity to learn lessons is more valuable than any individual lesson learned.” L&D leaders should make the debrief more about “thinking” than “things,” helping team members learn the problem solving and analysis skills necessary to make future projects successful.
3. Communicate results to leadership
Using the metrics you identified at the beginning of the process, show you were able to reach success, then discuss what you learned that will make the next project even better. When communicating results, shape your message for your audience. For example, your executive leadership team won’t be interested in the nitty-gritty project details. Instead, present them with a succinct message of what the organization gained from the project and, when possible, quantify the cost and benefits. Jack Phillips at the ROI Institute recommends the following strategies for communicating with top executives:
- Don’t distribute materials until the end. Advance copies allow executives to flip though the key issues in advance, which could cause you to lose control of the meeting.
- Be precise. Don’t waste time on small talk or unnecessary anecdotes. Instead be organized and focused throughout the presentation.
- Avoid jargon. Focus on business language, rather than jargon such as “value proposition,” “return on people,” etc.
- Spend less time on lower levels of evaluation data. Executives are most interested in quantitative data that shows impact and ROI.
- Present the data with a strategy in mind. Plan the presentation with a specific strategy in mind, then format the presentation to align with that strategy. For example, this strategy could include data sets such as barriers and aids to success, business impact, costs, ROI, etc.
- End with a call to action. Executives must approve the recommendations in the report and discuss the importance of impact and ROI for future projects. Finally, L&D should request support for future projects.
The point here is to communicate metrics that had business value that are important to your leadership team. According to a recent McKinsey survey, 90% of organizations say building capability is one of their top 10 priorities, yet only 25% say their programs improve performance measurably, and only 8% of organizations track ROI. To combat this issue, McKinsey recommends communicating the impact of training via hard business metrics, such as sales, conversion rates, downtime, etc.—whatever is most important to the business. These metrics should be dynamic, changing to meeting the needs of the business. Indeed, McKinsey recommends L&D teams keep reviewing and revising “the links between skills, performance, and training” so they communicate the training stories with the most profound impact on the organization’s strategy.
As a final point, be sure to communicate negative results. If leaders think you’re withholding information, all of the trust and credibility your team built will be lost. Also, you want to be sure they hear about the situation from you, rather than from someone else who may not have all of the facts—or may not have the same agenda as you.
When communicating the negative, don’t downplay it, blame it on someone else or try to spin. Instead, be prepared. Analyze the situation to discover exactly what happened, why it happened and what its impact could be. Using this information, develop possible solutions and recommendations on how to move forward. Erika Andersen at Forbes.com recommends the following steps for communicating bad news effectively:
- Speak up (don’t try to hide it)
- Be accurate (don’t spin)
- Take responsibility
- Say what you’ll do next
- Do what you say—and repeat as necessary
At Project Smart, Jennifer Whitt recommends using what she calls The Trial Balloon to lay the groundwork for negative news. With this approach, members of the L&D team meet with a few stakeholders at a time, explaining the facts of the situation with a “let me pass something by you” approach. Whitt believes this approach is effective because it “allows for additional options to be considered, further information to be introduced (for example, more resources may be available that the PM did not know were available) and crafting of the final message to occur prior to introducing it to the entire group. The result is that the messenger doesn’t stand alone, multiple options have been considered, and the bad news is not sensationalised.”
Good news! You’ve made it to the end of the project. You’ve measured its impact using metrics that matter to your business, you’ve communicated the results to your stakeholders and executive team, and you’ve debriefed with your team. By following these processes, you’ve increased your confidence in navigating a successful training project, the business’ confidence in L&D’s ability to impact the company’s bottom line, and your team’s ability to analyze and evaluate future projects.