Becoming a performance consultant
Nigel Turner looks at the benefits of performance consulting and gives us 10 tips.
"Solutions to problems are like keys in locks.; they don’t work if they don’t fit."Robert F Mager and Peter Pipe, Analysing Performance Problems
L&D's job is to help organisations improve performance. If L&D is to be relevant and valuable it must focus on the performance that matters to the business. Then it can figure out what’s needed to help people deliver that performance. To do this successfully, L&D needs to accept that performance improvement many not always need a learning solution.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is challenging, yet it has already been an opportunity for L&D to reinvent how it delivers learning. It is also an opportunity for L&D to review how it supports the business.
Adopting a performance consulting approach should be part of this review. In this article, I offer some thoughts about how performance consulting helps an organisation and how you can adopt it.
For as long as I can remember there has been a debate about L&D’s relevance and value. Some issues just won't go away.
First, do senior executives understand L&D’s role? Is their view restricted to compliance or onboarding training? Do they see it as a cost rather than an investment? If the latter, then L&D will be vulnerable when times are tough – as they are now.
By including performance consulting in your toolbox, you will align L&D with performance outcomes. Your credibility and value to the organisation will soar.
Line managers, so vital to the success of workplace learning, don't have time. L&D often struggles to get their attention and commitment. This makes it hard to develop work-based learning and promote the transfer of formal learning to the job.
And L&D doesn’t always help itself: sometimes it does its own thing rather than what the organisation needs. I once met an L&D manager whose emotional intelligence course had flopped. No-one had attended it. When I asked him what business performance need he was addressing through this training he couldn’t tell me. It was just something that he thought would be useful.
By including performance consulting in your toolbox, you will align L&D with performance outcomes. This will help you focus your time on initiatives that work. Your credibility and value to the organisation will soar.
The Learning and Performance Institute (LPI) describes performance consulting as ‘resolving workplace performance issues by partnering with customers/clients to provide a systematic analysis of performance gaps, recommending appropriate performance interventions, and measuring ensuing business outcomes.’
This is not a new idea. In 1970 Robert F Mager and Peter Pipe implored trainers to avoid what we now call ‘solutioneering’. They wrote:"What people identify as 'the problem' often isn’t the problem at all. It is merely a symptom. Until the problem is understood, proposing a solution is simply shooting from the hip."
More recently, Andy Lancaster head of L&D for CIPD wrote: "the new world of L&D involves performance consulting, data analysis, impact tracking, agile design, community management, curation, supporting self-direction, coaching, valuing and leveraging mistakes. That will require new skills and a new mindset."
Here’s an example from my own experience. A few years ago, the chair of a large-ish business asked me to help improve the performance of the top management team. The chair felt that some management training and a team-building process would help.
I was keen to do the work, but my intuition told me that something was amiss. I needed more information.
I interviewed team members and discovered that the Chief Executive and the Chief Operations Officer had a massive personality conflict that the chair hadn’t told me about. The team had split into two bitterly opposed camps and this was affecting performance. A training course would not solve this problem.
I told the chair that training would be a waste of time and money. He admitted that the board had to face up to reconstituting the team - a decision it had been putting off. We agreed that I would be an unbiased sounding board for their proposed actions.
A year later, after a lot of tough decisions and some distress, the new team was in place and functioning well. Performance improved. No formal training took place, but lots of learning happened.
Ten performance consulting tips
Introducing performance consulting into your function is a process, not an event. Here are a few pointers to help you get going.
- Change your mind-set. Keep an open mind. Stop being an order taker, or ‘solutioneer’. Start from the position that not every performance issue requires learning as a solution and promote this approach at every opportunity.
- Develop political savvy. There are formal channels in every organisation. Beyond them, there are mysterious informal channels that are essential to getting things done. Figure out how to make the best use of both channels. Know how to manage your stakeholders and enlist the support of those that count.
- Be assertive. Don’t let clients pressure you into developing quick fixes or ineffective solutions that waste time and money. Ask questions about the required performance and why people are falling short. Be tactful, of course.
- Focus on performance measurement. Isolate the metrics that matter. Get a clear understanding of the business impact that solving the performance problem will have. Use the most direct measures of performance that you can.
- Verify information. Access as many sources as you can. Talk to people, research the data. Ask lots of questions. Don’t accept anything at face value. Be impartial and unemotional. Above all, don’t jump to conclusions.
- Develop your business acumen. Understand the business and how its various parts work together. Understand business finance and other business metrics. Find out which metrics matter to your organisation.
- Improve your diagnostic and analytical skills. Be able to access, collate and analyse data. This will come from many different sources, financial, customers, marketing and HR. Think analytically and follow a process, identifying any potential roadblocks to solutions.
- Build rapport with your clients and develop trust. Trust requires a blend of warmth and credibility. Start by working with clients with whom you already have trust and rapport. Build rapport with others by focusing on solving their problems and matching their working style preferences. Mirror their behaviour, treat them as they want to be treated.
- Communicate, collaborate and negotiate. A critical part of the consulting process is the quality of the relationships you have with your clients. Involve people in joint problem solving and generating ideas. Aim for ‘win-win’ solutions but recognise when you might have to compromise. Once you’ve decided on a solution you may have to sell it to your client. You need to be able to present a credible case that focuses on business benefits.
- Use intuition and creativity. Blend data analysis with creativity and your feel for what works. Innovate but don’t overlook adapting previously successful solutions.
This advice might sound glib, I assure you that I know that it won’t be easy. People will take a while to adapt to this approach. Some of your clients might see you as an order taker. If so, they may well be puzzled or defensive when you don’t agree with their solution. Explain what you are trying to do and how it will benefit them.
Stick with it – you’ll be pleased that you did. So will the business
About the author
Nigel Turner is a lifelong L&D specialist. In a 30-year career he has worked in the private and public sectors both as an in-house L&D practitioner and an external consultant. From 2001 to 2018 Nigel lived and worked in southern Africa on behalf of MaST International, a leading L&D consultancy based in Maidenhead. Nigel currently works for TAP Learning.
Learning and Performance Institute. Capability Map. https://thelpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/LPI-Capability-Map-Guide-v1.08.pdf. Online, accessed 2021
Mager, Robert F and Pipe, Peter. 1970. Analysing Performance Problems. Fearon-Pitman Publishers, Belmont California.
Lancaster, Andy. 2020. Driving Performance Through Learning. Kogan Page, London.
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