For many L&D leaders, stakeholder management is one of the biggest challenges of the job. From trying to align stakeholders with competing priorities, setting expectations, and building trust, engaging with stakeholders can seem daunting. This is especially true for L&D leaders who are making the pivot from learning-based L&D to performance-led L&D.
So, how can you bring stakeholders on a journey and ensure that you’re not wasting their time or the organization's precious resources on doing something that isn't going to move the needle?
The answers to this crucial question are discussed in this L&D Podcast recap (check out the full episode here). This week, David James and co-host, Guy Wallace, sit down with Mirjam Neelen, Head of Global Learning Design and Learning Sciences at Novartis, about the importance of understanding the bigger picture and her approaches to analysis, design, and stakeholder management.
Read on to hear about Mirjam’s four tips for getting stakeholders aligned with performance improvement, the benefits of task analysis, and how to partner with stakeholders to create a ‘worked example’ as you pivot your L&D practice to performance.
Loving what you’re reading? Come and join the L&D Collective for more great learning insights, resources, and events!
Mirjam began her career as a speech therapist before moving to L&D 15 years ago.
“I've always been interested in how the brain processes things,” she explains. “I have a masters in psycholinguistics. So that's how I also ended up as a speech therapist. I wanted to work with people with neurological disorders and help them to communicate effectively.”
However, one of Mirjam's biggest frustrations was that speech therapy wasn’t evidence-based. So, she decided to build a career the way she wanted to, and after some research, she did another masters in learning sciences.
“I then started my career as an instructional designer,” says Mirjam. “I did a lot of eLearning development, and over time, I went on to more strategic roles, leading projects and being more responsible for the higher-level design approaches.”
In her current role at Novartis, Mirjam is building learning design capability across the organization, driven by engaging with the business.
“I pick one or two projects each quarter so that we're solving real business problems. We extract case studies, frameworks, models, examples, and whatever we can use to help others change their practice,” she says.
I pick one or two projects each quarter so that we're solving real business problems. We extract case studies, frameworks, models, examples, and whatever we can use to help others change their practice.
When Mirjam studied learning sciences, she worked with the Four-Component Instructional Design model, setting it as her foundation at the start of her career.
“The 4C-ID model is described in the book, Ten Steps to Complex Learning,” she explains, “which helps you focus on tasks that people need to complete on the job. That's my education, and I've always thought about learning that way.”
However, Mirjam realized early on that this approach is not typically how L&D programs are designed. “When I was more junior and creating eLearning, it was tough to see how a specific eLearning program I was developing was helping people to do something different on the job.”
“It always has frustrated me that I wasn't able to see the bigger picture. I couldn't understand if I was actually adding value or not,” she says.
Mirjam focuses on work and performance because of how her masters was designed. “So later, when I started working for an applied research center, I began to understand more about the business and how they think about business problems.”
So, does Mirjam have a systemized approach for performance improvement that works for her now?
In Mirjam’s experience, making an impact on performance starts by getting your stakeholders on board, collaborating with them on business goals, and testing through a worked example.
“I try to be systematic in the sense that I try to see all the steps I should take,” she says.
First up, Mirjam engages with her stakeholders to identify the business problem that needs to be solved.
Mirjam has found that bringing stakeholders together using a virtual whiteboard (if working remotely) works well.
“I work with global teams, so I never really have a chance to work with people face to face, but I think it’s an important step to bring stakeholders together,” she says.
For example, using a Miro board, Mirjam and her stakeholders discuss the problem they are trying to solve. Interestingly, stakeholders start to see that they often disagree on what they are trying to achieve.
“If stakeholders start to realize that they don't even agree on the solution together, well, then that's for them to solve. I don't have to challenge them anymore because they start challenging each other,” she says.
If stakeholders start to realize that they don't even agree on the solution together, well, then that's for them to solve. I don't have to challenge them anymore because they start challenging each other.
Next up, show stakeholders whether or not their content will solve the performance problem.
If stakeholders send her a lot of content, Mirjam explains, she tries to make sense of it by mapping it out in some kind of flow.
“I make an effort to try and understand what they want to achieve with the content. And then when they start talking about the work, we can later map their content to what the actual work looks like.”
“What that does is that they realize that their content will not get them where they want to be,” she explains. “And sometimes they will say they don't have the budget and will still just go with the content, but at least they realize at that point that it’s not going to move the needle as much as they hoped it would.”
Next, Mirjam sets out the visualization of the targeted work and what it takes to perform the job.
“So, I would talk about the steps,” she says. “First you do this, then you do this, then you do that. And before that, I would have asked–and this is Guy’s work too–what's the deliverable because that helps people be more concrete.”
“And then for each step, I ask them: what do you need to be able to do and what do you need to be able to know?”
In some cases, Mirjam also moves towards creating what she calls a ‘worked example’ with her stakeholders.
“When I say worked example, I mean let's think about a concrete scenario or project that you worked on recently in the context of this work. Let's think about what it took, what you need to do, how you need to do it, and why you need to do it that way.”
“So it just goes one level deeper. I also ask more questions about what usually goes wrong or what mistakes can happen. This is necessary to be able to understand what it takes to learn the work.”
Mirjam's approach helps you understand what to work on in the first place by bringing in all your stakeholders. Think about it: if master performers don’t know 70% of what they do to complete a task, does one stakeholder fully understand the problem they're seeking to solve?
Mirjam aims to change stakeholders’ perspectives from asking for training to focusing on what they are trying to achieve. For many stakeholders, this requires a change in mindset.
For example, Mirjam remembers when she was trying to sell spaced-learning over time. A stakeholder said it wasn't true because when they binge-watch on Netflix, they remember better than watching one episode a week.
“I replied: ‘Well, I don't know much about the science of Netflix, but I do know a little bit about the science of learning.’ The way I try to change that is to try to understand what they're trying to achieve,” she says. “I'm asking them questions such as: what's the problem? What do people need?
“I always try to keep that front and center and talk about learning objectives, and at some point, they realize that I really was trying to help them achieve their goal—I wasn’t purposely trying to delay their training project by asking all these questions.”
I always try to keep that front and center and talk about learning objectives, and at some point, they realize that I really was trying to help them achieve their goal—I wasn’t purposely trying to delay their training project by asking all these questions.
In Mirjam’s experience, that’s all you need to focus on. "It may take a while and it does require effort because you need to actively listen and break down barriers. But by building a reputation developed around helping the organization achieve desired outcomes, rather than simply delivering more stuff, you will increase your currency within the business,” says Mirjam.
To highlight the benefit of L&D leaders’ carring out a task analysis to support performance improvement, Mirjam has a recent practical example.
She explains there was an existing program, and the initial request from stakeholders was that they move their interventions over to the new learning experience platform. Despite doing their best, they needed Mirjam to assess it and give them some ideas on improvements.
“So, I had some initial conversations with the training person who was a subject-matter expert in a training role,” she says. “He showed me data that found sales numbers had decreased due to fewer face-to-face meetings with customers. And so this program was focused on helping people to build more online presence and engage with customers.”
“I assessed the learning program and thought there was a lot of good content, but I didn't understand why it was sequenced the way it was, and I didn't see any real-life examples for people to understand. And so I suggested doing a task analysis of the extent the current program was mirroring the actual work.”
Through task analysis, Mirjam could go back and show stakeholders that she knew what it took for people to do what was required of them and then make better recommendations on why the sequence and flow had to change.
“And because of the task analysis,” she explains, “my client was better able to see that they now had this as part of their training, but for people to change their behavior and build new habits, they needed to provide additional support and guidance over time.”
To make your pivot to performance, Mirjam suggests that you start with something like a task analysis.
“And the way you can frame it is: let's make sure that the people we're trying to serve get what they need so that they can support what you are trying to achieve,” she explains.
“Start with something small that you can do in one or two hours with a stakeholder so that you can begin to demonstrate to them why a program needs to change and what it takes for people to do that piece of work.”
Start with something small that you can do in one or two hours with a stakeholder so that you can begin to demonstrate to them why a program needs to change and what it takes for people to do that piece of work.