The day of reckoning for learning and development will be upon us if we continue to think we can plug skill gaps with generic content in behemoth platforms without proper analysis of the problem.
So, what is the solution to upskilling our organizations? And is there a tried and tested approach that can help you make your pivot to performance and, more predictably and reliably, make an impact with your L&D strategy?
In this L&D Podcast episode, my co-host, Guy Wallace, and I sit down with Carl Binder, CEO of The Performance Thinking Network, to speak about his pivot to performance and his accomplishments-based Six Boxes® model.
Read on to hear about how Carl began his career as a behavior researcher at Harvard University, how he and his team redefined and evolved a groundbreaking learning model that makes an impact, and how you can fill the skills gap in your organization.
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Carl started his career as a behavior researcher with Fred Skinner at Harvard before heading into research in a laboratory for ten years.
“We did laboratory research on learning,” he explains, “we were also working with disabled people in institutions for much of that time, and other special populations, where if you didn't have effective instructional systems, they didn't learn anything.”
“In about 1980,” he says, “I moved into sales and eventually customer service and many other areas. But what I discovered, of course, is that you can do fantastic training, which we did for salespeople, but if you don't arrange the other conditions in their world to support the application of that, it's not going to work.”
Thomas Gilbert's Behavior Engineering Model, or BEM, was introduced to Carl, which started him on a journey with thought leaders in the industry and applying what he learned with a special emphasis on using plain English to make the BEM accessible to as many people as possible.
What attracted Carl to Gilbert’s BEM was that it put all the variables into a simple context.
“So, my team members and I would use the BEM as we thought about what else we needed to do to support learning in the field besides just effective instruction and practice,” he explains.
However, Carl and the team hit a bump. When they started partnering with stakeholders, the language in the BEM wasn’t well communicated—clients didn’t understand what it meant.
“So, we took a user-testing approach to it,” says Carl. “We wanted something that anybody could understand, which evolved during the eighties until we got the model we now have.”
“Then from about 2005,” he says, “when we realized we had something we could teach other people in a useful way, we started to refine it over time by focusing on accomplishments and how we teach people to identify and define accomplishments to which we would then apply appropriate behavior in the BEM.”
So, when Carl and the team teach the BEM, where do they start? Well, it comes down to defining performance which means defining two crucial terms: accomplishments and work outputs.
When defining performance, you need to focus on how you identify accomplishments, just as Carl and the team did.
But Carl has two crucial points for you to consider about accomplishments. One is that the definition of accomplishment in the dictionary more frequently means the completion of behavior, rather than the thing that the behavior produced.
“And secondly,” he says, “if you look in our field at the literature or presentations, people mean a lot of different things with that word. They sometimes mean big business results, and sometimes small things.”
“So, we developed this very simple model where we said the elements of performance are behavior that produces accomplishments that contribute to organizational or societal results. And you can't define performance without those three elements because you don't know the context.”
Having defined accomplishments, Carl and the team focused on defining work outputs.
Carl and the team coined the term work outputs during their work to define performance.
“If there is one thing that I've insisted on,” he says, “it is the notion that an accomplishment has to be a countable thing. It has to be countable now.”
Carl and the team have developed a set of words based on practical experience about how you look for work outputs. They are deliverables, widgets, documents, relationships, transactions, or decisions.
“I'm a nitpicker,” he explains. “I'm always telling people that I'm like a fifth-grade grammar teacher because when I look at a description of a work output, I want it to be a noun. I don't want any verbs in there, and I want it to be countable.”
“Once people identify the work outputs in whatever the performance is, it's a lot easier to go after the behavior and figure out using the Six Boxes® model what we need to support and improve to support that behavior,” says Carl.
Once people identify the work outputs in whatever the performance is, it's a lot easier to go after the behavior and figure out using the Six Boxes® model what we need to support and improve to support that behavior.
So, what is the Six Boxes® model?
Following Giblert’s BEM, the Six Boxes® model is a matrix with two rows in three columns.
“Gilbert developed the notion that there are things in the environment that influence behavior,” explains Carl. “In the top row are expectations and feedback, tools and resources, and consequences and incentives. The bottom row is the individuals and consists of skills and knowledge, selection and assignment, and motives and preferences.”
In motives and preferences, Carl and the team have added a subtopic of attitudes. Firstly, they have learned they must understand people's motives and preferences to arrange the other behavior inputs accordingly.
Secondly, they have observed that if people are very clear on expectations, are getting good consistent feedback, have got tools and resources, are getting recognized for doing the right thing, are moderately well skilled, and are in the right roles, they'll probably be happy campers, and they'll stick around.
“But if all that employee engagement is misaligned, negative, or misaligned, then you can't do much to fix that person's attitude other than to rearrange the conditions for their performance,” Carl explains.
If all that employee engagement is misaligned, negative, or misaligned, then you can't do much to fix that person's attitude other than to rearrange the conditions for their performance.
“Organizations are having a hard time holding on to employees, as the Great Resignation has demonstrated. We think arranging all those conditions systemically is a really important solution to keeping people around,” he says.
So, what is Carl’s advice to help you fill the skills gap in your organization? The solution isn’t as simple as a behemoth LMS with swathes of generic content.
In Carl’s experience, when facing the challenge of large suites of generic content marketed as the solution to filling our skills gap, he finds it best to aim the conversation around competency modeling.
“The problem with competencies is they're inherently abstract because they all came from an analysis,” he says.
For example, the analysis will turn out a list of 130 things sorted into piles and named. “So you come up with something like ‘communication effectiveness,’ but that looks completely different when I’m working with a tough negotiator or trying to sell something–it’s a completely different behavior,” Carl explains.
“So, if I have an LMS that is organized that way, or if I have a performance management system that rates people on communication effectiveness, then the level of abstraction is so absurd that I believe it does more damage than good.”
If I have an LMS that is organized that way, or if I have a performance management system that rates people on communication effectiveness, then the level of abstraction is so absurd that I believe it does more damage than good.
Competency modeling only works for the vendors who are great at selling LMSs and performance management systems, as Carl explains, who will tweak their competency model for you for a mere several hundred thousand dollars.
And if you get a Chief Learning Officer in a room, one-on-one, and ask them how competency modeling is working for them, a lot of them will give you stories about how they cannot give too many fives because they grade on a curve or need to provide the employee with room for improvement.
“It's crazy,” says Carl. “This is not measurement. This is a refined opinion, as one of my colleagues called it. All of the ramifications of generic training and development, I think, is just enormously wasteful, and the only people the ROI is working for are the people selling these systems.”
So, is there a better approach to talent development? According to Carl, you’ll be able to make a more significant impact by adopting an accomplishment-based approach.
Coming from a background with Gilbert, Carl and the team actively try to promote accomplishment-based talent development.
“If I define your job in terms of the outputs you have to produce, which is easy to do, now I'm in a position to hire through things like behavioral interview questions and performance tests on those outputs,” he says. “Have you ever produced a strategic plan or a budget or had to deal with a tough relationship? Tell me about it.”
Onboarding can also be done through an accomplishment-based approach. You can outline what outputs a person needs to be up to speed on sooner rather than later, and you can stage onboarding over time and start to focus training on those outputs. If you focus on accomplishments, you can support people's ability to produce them.
“Then, you can move people into an ongoing coaching process,” Carl says. “We have an accomplishment-based coaching program that addresses what you need to produce on the job, what you need to improve, and what you might need for the next project or the next step in your career.”
But how can you start selling an accomplishments-based approach to your stakeholders? In Carl’s experience, it is all about helping them reach those light bulb moments.
Carl and the team work hard to create content to help people engage with their stakeholders, including the white paper called Get Out of the Training Box.
“We say that classically, training professionals are turned into order takers, and so the challenge as a learning and development professional is to learn enough so that you can address the other factors that influence performance, the other cells in the Six Boxes®,” Carl explains. “But the harder part is to get your stakeholders to buy in.”
“I'm looking for these aha moments,” Carl explains. “So, when people, for example, see that anchoring our understanding performance, invaluable contributions, work outputs, and accomplishments that people make, as opposed to the behavior, when a stakeholder gets that, it's like, ‘Oh, that changes everything!’”
I'm looking for these aha moments. So, when people see that anchoring our understanding performance, invaluable contributions, work outputs, and accomplishments that people make, as opposed to the behavior, when a stakeholder gets that, it's like, ‘Oh, that changes everything!’
“If I can engage individuals where I can see the aha moment, the light bulb going off, they then learn stuff that they're not going to unlearn. It may take a while for that stuff to add up, but there are some insights that people get about how this focus on performance changes everything and makes it so you can improve performance, not just do training in the corner” he says.
Thanks to Carl for sharing his Six Boxes® and accomplishment-based framework with us! Keen to learn more from L&D experts? Check out the episode where David and Guy speak to Mirjam Neelen about the importance of understanding the bigger picture and her approaches to analysis, design, and stakeholder management.
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