Three chords and the truth: A country song for L&D
Analyzing the problem, defining a solution, and knowing how to measure it.
There’s a saying in country music: All you need is three chords and the truth.
It’s a line attributed to songwriter Harlan Howard and, for those who like country music, it encapsulates what makes country great. You don’t need to be a virtuoso performer or an incredible poet. You just need a few basic chords and to speak from the heart.
Of course, for others, it’s the reason that country sucks: repetitive songs are paired with simple lyrics about fried chicken, cold beer, fitted jeans and the radio.
For me, fresh from a Christmas in Nashville, I’m all in. And I think it’s naive to say that simplicity is easy.
So here’s my three chords for L&D: Analyzing the problem, defining the outcome, and knowing how to measure it.
🌵 Chord #1: Analyzing the problem
How often has a stakeholder ridden up to you with a request for training? The easiest thing to do is take the order, and where does pushing back get you? Another day older and deeper in debt.
But it’s in nobody’s interest to jump to a solution. Not the developers who have to make a content dump seem interesting, not the learners who have to suffer through the output, not the stakeholder who is disappointed when training doesn’t solve their problem.
Instead, take a step back. What’s happening, that shouldn’t be? What’s not happening, that should?
Techniques like the ‘Five Whys’ or Julie Dirksen’s concept of ‘gaps’ can help you explore an issue. Exploring a problem in terms of the ‘Ladder of Abstraction’ can help determine at which level of the problem to focus your efforts.
⛰️ Chord #2: Defining the outcome
Chord #2 progresses nicely from Chord #1. In fact, if you don’t play Chord #1 first and analyze the problem, then it’s impossible to know how to reach your defined outcome. How can you improve the culture on your ranch if you don’t know whether it’s driven by a toxic foreman, the low wages or the terrible weather?
And by ‘defining the outcome’, I don’t mean the ‘learning outcome’. I mean the visible and tangible outcome of whatever-it-is-that-you’re-doing.
You know what behaviors aren’t being demonstrated. What would it look like if they were on display?
You know which metric you want to shift. But what would a ‘good’ result look like?
Setting yourself a clear target gives you an end goal to work backwards from. It helps you identify the actions that will contribute to that outcome, and the steps to avoid. In the worst case scenarios, it gives you an insight into when to walk away, and when to run.
🐎 Chord #3: Knowing how to measure it
This is often the hardest bit for the stakeholders we work with here at Mind Tools. Often times, a ‘problem’ might be based on a general perception or feeling, rather than quantitative data. An ‘outcome’ is likely to be ‘people are better at X’, without really being sure what that means.
As Kevin M Yates said when he joined our podcast: “Learning evaluation is hard”. You might say it’s harder than life for a boy named Sue. But it’s harder still if we don’t know what the problem is or what the ideal outcome would look like.
So assuming chords 1 and 2 are ringing in harmony, ask yourself how you would measure success at the start of the project. What are the early indicators that things are working? How would you be able to tell that the project has successfully delivered the value you are seeking?
🤠 Don’t bore us, get to the chorus: The truth
I’ve never lassoed a horse, but it looks hard. And so is this.
Analyzing problems is hard, defining an outcome is hard, measuring it is even harder.
Here on the Mind Tools Custom desk, we might run multiple scoping workshops over several hours with stakeholders - and end up with a problem statement that looks more like the lyrics to American Pie than a pithy bumper sticker.
Usually that’s a sign that we’re not done yet.
A useful check is to ask if you can write your problem statement in one sentence. Last year, we created a handout about the size of a postcard that you can feel free to rip off. But be warned: The sentence we write on that postcard isn’t usually the first sentence we’ve written.
Like many country hits, it’s gone through multiple iterations: From a complex jumble of ideas, to a tighter focus, and finally an authentic truth.
Maybe there’s nothing that a little time and Patsy Cline won’t fix, but at work we might need to take a more proactive approach.
Need help analyzing your workplace problems? Email email@example.com or reply to this newsletter from your inbox. We’d love to help!
🎧 On the podcast
Since the launch of ChatGPT in late 2022, AI has seldom been out of the news (or this newsletter). Such is the pace of change, it can feel difficult to keep up.
But how is L&D actually using this technology? What do learning professionals perceive as the benefits of AI, and what are the barriers to implementation?
In this week’s episode of The Mind Tools L&D Podcast, Ross D and Owen are joined by Donald Taylor to discuss a report he co-authored with Egle Vinauskaite, which seeks to answer some of these questions.
Check out the episode below. 👇
Incidentally, I put this week’s newsletter into ChatGPT three times while writing it, and asked for feedback each time. If you’re curious, it encouraged me to double down on the country gags.
📖 Deep dive
What makes a great leader? A wealth of business books, magazines and websites (including our own) offer advice in this area.
Now, a new paper takes aim at the existing consensus, branding the focus on leaders, their qualities and actions as ‘zombie leadership’ theory: a collection of ideas about leadership that have been debunked but, already being dead, cannot be killed.
Or, more extensively:
‘…a powerful cocktail of ideas that removes the masses from the running of society, legitimates the prevailing social hierarchy, and provides those in positions of power with a justification for their sense of superiority that is at the same time both comfortable and comforting.’
The paper is full of provocative observations:
Democrat-leaning academics tend to see Democratic presidents as ‘greater leaders’ than Republican presidents;
‘Leadership’ is usually discussed as a ‘good thing’ despite obvious examples of leaders who were effective-but-awful (Hitler, say);
The impulse that newly appointed leaders have to make sweeping changes is ‘often simply unhelpful’.
But what I liked most is the paper’s accessible tone and focus on starting a debate.
Long-time podcast listeners will know that our friend Owen Ferguson likes to point out my cheap tabloid leanings. From now on I shall defer to this statement from the paper:
‘We suggest that faint-hearted readers may want to nuance our observations by imagining a generous sprinkling of “often”s, “tends to”s and “more or less”es throughout the text. We, however, have largely refrained from inserting these ourselves as our intention is not to soften but to sharpen the argument, to bring obscured assumptions into clear relief and thereby to provoke debate.’
If my LinkedIn feed is anything to go by, the paper has certainly done that: with difficult questions for anyone in a formal leadership position, responsible for leadership development programs, or who - like me - could be considered part of the ‘leadership industrial complex’.
Shout out to Carl Akintola-Davis who brought this concept to my attention when he joined our podcast last year.
Haslam, S. A., Alvesson, M., & Reicher, S. D. (2024). Zombie leadership: Dead ideas that still walk among us. The Leadership Quarterly, 101770.
👹 Missing links
We’ve talked many times on our podcast about the biggest barrier to widespread adoption of VR: most people don’t have a headset. If they do own one, they have little incentive to turn it on. Until now! With Taylor Swift’s Eras tour now available on Amazon’s Prime Video app, Swifties can immerse themselves completely - and some industry analysts think this could be the pivot point for bringing VR to the mainstream.
We’ve long talked about the ‘replication crisis’ in behavioral science, where famous insights like the impact of ‘power poses’ on confidence don’t seem to hold up. It’s easy to judge, but it’s also true that researchers who want to be published have strong incentives to cherry pick results. This week, an article in The Economist brought a radical solution to my attention: Academic journals accept papers based on the strengths of their methodologies, and before results are known. In this way, we would hear about experiments no matter what they find. I’d be in favour of this approach in workplace learning interventions, too.
Have the games we played as children shaped our experience of work? Writing in Wired, Rachel Botsman (real name) argues that while older folks grew up playing Tetris and accepted the idea that ‘you work hard but can’t win’, the new kids on the Roblox (geddit?) don’t see any point in this structure. They’re used to co-creating worlds, and want leaders who share this philosophy.
👋 And finally…
Ever since I read the above, I’ve had the Tetris theme in my head. Except instead of fitting blocks together in a row, I’m filing emails into folders. So it goes.
👍 Welcome to the finish line!
You made it! You must be an uber fan.
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So if you’ve got a thorny workplace problem and want us to saddle up a solution, let us know.
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