L&D Strategy

How to Avoid L&D Value Debt by Investing in Strategically Impactful Initiatives


Ant Pugh, an industry leading Performance Consultant, joins Blake Proberts on the Strategic L&D Podcast to talk about the importance of having the strategic impact conversation upfront, value debt in L&D (and how to avoid it), prioritising solutions, and thinking about the best way to solve the business problem rather than just taking a large training deck and repurposing it. Listen to the full episode above or watch below.

This article is a transcript of a podcast first published in July 2022.

Ant, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. I think it’d be great to start off with a little bit of an introduction about yourself, your story and what you do in the L&D space.

Yeah, thanks. So yeah, I started off, actually, my background is in design and then I quite quickly transitioned into kind of training. I was teaching some of the design software I’d been learning about in university. So, I spent many years as a classroom training trainer—after a few years kind of realised those two skill sets aligned quite nicely when it came to kind of designing eLearning. So, bringing the kind of design skills into the kind of L&D environment. And so for many years, I was designing eLearning—this is the kind of quick version—and realise that, you know, probably embarrassingly almost after a decade, I guess, of doing this, I was just kind of cranking out training that wasn’t actually delivering business results.

It looked great, as a designer I, you know, really prided myself on creating great looking training. I learned how to use the development tools, so worked, you know, is robust, it functioned properly. And it did everything that the client asked me that it would do that. I put all their content in or, you know, made it, you know, engaging in inverted commas, and, you know, I made it work, but quite quickly realised that I wasn’t delivering business value—which is why, you know, I was being hired in the first place. And this started off in the corporate world to begin with. And then when I started freelancing, I was seeing some of the same patterns come to the fore, then.

And so in the last few years, I’ve really focused more on consulting, really, and when I talk about consulting, I’m talking about actually having those very strategic conversations at the beginning of any learning or training intervention, to figure out what is the real problem behind that, why are we why are we having this conversation in the first place? Why do you want this training that you’ve come to me with? So yeah, last few years, I’ve really focused a lot more on on that kind of front end analysis, and the performance consulting piece at the beginning of a project.

And so actually, I’m still in many ways exactly the same as I was five years ago. I’m still a training designer, or a learning designer or instructional designer or whatever you want to call me. But the solutions that I now deliver are very, very different because we do a lot more analysis and problem solving at the beginning to make sure that what we’re gonna design does actually solve a business problem, rather than just delivering what was asked of me. So I now do that as a freelancer. I’m British, but now live in Australia, and I do over here.

And then, whilst that’s paying the bills, what I’m really passionate about is teaching while I’m learning about this stuff, so I have a newsletter I write daily, put a lot of content out there. My main kind of channel is LinkedIn, really. But I write this daily email, got a list of about 1500 learning designers who I write to every day, just with what really I’m trying to share the journey of what I’m what I’m going through, what I’m seeing every day, so the experiences I’m having with clients, things that are working, you know, with my clients, things that are not working, things that I’m testing out that, you know, we’ve had successes with, and just different things, that I’m seeing different trends, different insights that I’m seeing, as somebody who’s you know, been working in L&D now for, you know, approaching 20 years, just trying to share that with others. Because, whilst I can help clients on a one-to-one basis, I really feel that my highest contribution is to help, you know, the industry as a whole. And if I can help 1000 instructional designers achieve something, you know, they’re gonna go off and work with 1000 different clients, and I’m gonna have a much bigger impact than working with one client at a time. So my ultimate goal, whilst I’m doing client work in the short term, my ultimate goal is to really help the industry at scale.

What are some of the challenges that your clients have faced where you found you can deliver a lot of value by solving those problems? Are there any recurring themes when you’re trying to solve some of those business objectives?

Yeah, I mean, every single client will have—will come to you with a different need. Whether they can articulate it or not is a different thing. Most, most of the time, they haven’t even thought about it, you know.

Either you’ve got two scenarios: You’ve got the card classic scenario where somebody in a higher higher position within the business does ask somebody lower down to go out and, you know, find somebody to build you the training. So they get given the slide deck, they get given the name of the subject matter expert, and they say, right, go out and find somebody who can build me this training. And the biggest problem is—with regard to that—is that the person that they find to build the training, whether it’s internal or externally hiring an agency or a freelancer, is that nine times out of 10—I’d say even more than that—maybe 99 times out of 100, the person that they’re speaking to doesn’t have the performance consulting skills to successfully identify what the root cause of the problem is.

“The problem is that the person they find to build the training… doesn’t have the skills to successfully identify what the root cause of the problem is.”

So, you know, conversations quickly escalate into how many slides are there? What colour do you want the buttons? Do you want videos in there? You know, how many modules should we make? You know, all those questions around the specifics of what the client wants, when actually what they really need to be doing is asking some deeper, quick questions to figure out, why do you want this training in the first place? So that’s, that’s the piece of the jigsaw that’s missing.

And that’s really what I’m trying to, to help share share with the world really, is that whether it’s that one instructional designer’s responsibility to do that performance consulting or not, is a different question. I’m not suggesting that every instructional designer needs to do that. But it needs to be done, regardless of whether that person does it or somebody else. So you’ve got to have that piece. Otherwise, the solutions that we’re designing, they’re just not going to be effective.

And I was actually thinking about this this morning, I was thinking about comparing it to web design. And if you think about trying to design a web design, you could almost—because you’ve got a techie background, so you’re familiar with building websites—if you build a website, if you build a crappy website, most people can navigate their way through it, find what they’re looking for, and they’ll be on their way. It’s not going to be a website that they go back to and use regularly. Or that they maybe they will need to use it regularly, because it’s the intranet of the company and that’s where they have to go to get the processes or the you know, they have to use it every day. It’s not a pleasant experience.

The problem with training, though, is that if we build—you know, I get clients coming to me all the time, and they say, can you convert my 70 slides of PowerPoint into an eLearning course, you know, maybe like a 45 minute, eLearning course or something. Every time a staff member sits and goes through that 45 minutes of training, we’re creating a deficit where that company is losing money for that 45 minutes, we’re paying for people to be off the job. They’re sitting on that eLearning course. Let’s imagine you’ve got 100,000 people taking the course—I can’t do the math. But imagine 45 minutes per person, that’s a hell of amount of time to be not productive in their jobs. Not to mention, you’ve got the additional costs of the opportunity cost, what would they—what is the opportunity cost? Sorry, I’m talking rubbish. So that’s the opportunity, opportunity cost? And what would they be doing if they were spending that time otherwise, what else could they be doing in that 45 minutes? But then you’ve got the reputational damage as well. So those 100,000 people are now thinking, wow, that was the worst 45 minutes I’ve ever spent, was totally useless, didn’t help me do my job. And next time somebody suggests I should do an eLearning course or do a training course, I’m not going to be very excited about it, because my last experience was bad.

And then you’ve got not only that, you’ve got the cost of development and the amount of—the amount of work that goes into actually building a solution. So if you factor in all those costs, there’s a huge amount of, yeah, value being lost there, really.

I’ve been talking to somebody else about this recently. We call it value debt, you know, we’re accumulating this value debt, where we’re sucking the life out of these businesses, based on these training experiences that when designing. If only we had those conversations at the start better, to figure out what the solutions were, then that wouldn’t happen and we can make sure that, you know, what I would imagine would happen is that 90% of the training requests that come in will actually be rejected. And we’d decide, actually, there are better solutions and training for this. You don’t need training to solve this problem. Here’s something else you can do that’s a lot quicker, a lot more efficient and effective, gonna cost you a lot less money. It might not even be training related. It might be something to do with improving the process or improving the tools that they’re using or helping improve staff motivation or something like that.

But then the remaining 10%, we can really make sure that the solutions are effective and are actually delivering a return on investment for our clients. So I’m not sure if I answered your question. But in that roundabout way, some of the some of things that I’m saying.

How do you distinguish a problem from a symptom? Because something that we see quite a lot of is, “The pain we’re feeling is here”—but it’s actually caused by a different problem.

Yeah, exactly. So we start off with the goal. But that’s the first thing I would always start with; is identifying what do you want to achieve? And that usually falls into one of two categories. I can’t think of any situations where it wouldn’t fall into one of these two categories. I call it like a pain or a gain. So, the pain is like a problem that they’re currently experiencing. Or it might be a problem that they’re anticipating that they might feel in the future. So if it’s a new product, or a new process, or a new piece of software that the company is rolling out, something like that, you know, yes, okay, we haven’t currently got any problems with this, because it’s a new thing. But what are the problems that you anticipate we might have? You know, new product, or customer service staff don’t know the complexities of the product, and therefore can’t support people on the, on the phone when they call up about it. So that would be a problem.

And then the gain would be right, we spotted an opportunity, we think that we can improve sales by you know, introducing this new process, or whatever it is, so kind of falls into two camps. But you start off with that goal. And once you’ve identified the goal, you’re planting a flag in the ground, really, and you’re saying, whatever we do, we’re going to focus on that goal as a team. So you’re immediately setting expectations with the clients, with the subject matter experts, with whichever stakeholders you’re working with, to make sure you’re focused, to make sure, as a team, you’re aligned with achieving that goal. That’s got to be the number one thing that we’re going for. Anything else is secondary. Once you’ve identified the goal, then you can start figuring out, you know, how do we how do we achieve that goal?

So, you know, for me, it was a lot of that was with the focus on human performance. So what are people supposed to be doing in their jobs for us to achieve that goal? Oh, they need to follow the six-step process. Or they need to be using this piece of software or, you know, they need to be practising this thing. So and that’s where we start figuring out which solutions make most sense to help people achieve their goal. But it can be, you know, it can be other other things as well. So it could be, you know, the process isn’t very well defined, or there’s a problem in the process. So by going through that performance consulting approach, we’re really taking a slight step back from the learning development and training world, and we’re saying this potentially could be much bigger than training. It’s very, it’s almost arrogant for us to think that training is the solution to a business problem, you know, and it’s almost, it’s naive to think that the client has the skills to figure out the best solution for their problem. You know, we need people who are skilled in that role as a performance consultant to figure out what the problem is first, or what the opportunity is and then design solutions to address that.

“It’s almost arrogant for us to think that training is the solution to a business problem.

It’s a skill set in itself to go and diagnose those problems or opportunities, bring them to the forefront, and then work out what the goal is. What’s the hardest part of that?

There’s a few pieces to the jigsaw that you need to put in place before you can even have that conversation, or before you can have that conversation effectively. I’ll give you an example: I’m working on a client project at the moment. And I was kind of drafted in a little bit later into the process. So they already agreed on how many modules the training was going to be. They agreed the scope of work, they’d agreed the format, all that kind of stuff. And so once those expectations have been set, it’s very difficult to turn around and say, well, training is not going to fix problem. You’re gonna need, you’re gonna need to improve the software, or you’re gonna need to have better leadership within the business. You know, once the expectations of the clients have been set, it’s very difficult, difficult to change that later on.

So you’ve got to kind of get your ducks in a row, if you like, when it comes to having that type of conversation. So, first thing is actually, I think it’s an internal shift you have to make in your own mind. That involves, I think, a lot of courage. You know, you’ve got to go into conversations, being aware that you’re not going to know the answer. You know, it’s very difficult for somebody who’s very picky. I worked for many years as an instructional designer to get to a point when somebody came to me with a slide deck and said, can you turn this into a snazzy eLearning course? I worked for nearly a decade to get to a point where I could say, with confidence, yeah, I can take this and I can make this look amazing. It’s going to work on your LMS, it’s going to be really engaging, it’s going to have videos and be broken down into micro learning. So I got to a point where I was like, no, I feel confident doing this.

And I had to, when I started focusing on goals and business objectives, and consulting and all this stuff, kind of get rid of that a little bit. Because it was very, what’s the word I’m trying to try to say? I had to become very vulnerable again. Because when you entering that type of conversation, and you’re focusing on the business goal, you’re putting yourself into a situation where you don’t know what the solution is going to be. And you might not know what the solution is going to be for another six weeks. So you’re going to conversation with a client, and you’re saying, look, I don’t know what the solution is. But let’s work through this together. And that comes I think, with experience and practice. So it takes a little time to go through the process a few times. There’s a moment where you have to jump in at the deep end and say, look, it’s a leap of faith, I don’t know if this is going to pan out. And in six weeks’ time, the client might turn around and say, look, we just want our eLearning course, can we can we go ahead with what we asked for in the first place? For me, it was a case of—it was a leap of faith, it was a case of saying, “I’m going to be courageous, I’m going to attempt to do this properly”. And I’m going to focus on the business goal rather than just what the client has diagnosed as the the solution that they want.

So that’s the first part, is the mindset. The second part, I think, would be the kind of—you could almost call that mindset part, I was gonna say the second part is positioning. And I’m just gonna say, you can almost say the first part is actually internal positioning—your positioning in your own mind to say, “I’m positioning myself as somebody who’s going to help you solve the problem”, rather than somebody who’s going to just take your slides and build your training.

The second part is the external positioning. So how, what is the perception that I’m giving to somebody when I start a project with them? Does my website, say, I designed beautiful, eLearning courses? Or does my website, say, I will work with you to achieve a satisfactory business outcome? They might, if you’re internal, it might be your job title, or your company, or your department name, or it might be—you know, I see a lot of these training request forms where people are asking internal stakeholders to fill out a training request form. But the clue is in the title, right? If I’m giving you a training request form, I’m asking you to tell me what training I’m going to build you. Whereas, you know, what we should really be doing is asking them, you know, what is the problem you’re facing and how can I help you solve that problem?

“Instead of leading them down the path of what training do you want, we’re leading them down the path of what change do you want to see in your business?”

So instead of leading them down the path of what training do you want, we’re leading them down the path of what change do you want to see in your business? So that’s, you know, another part of the jigsaw, if you don’t do these things, before you have the conversations, when they sit in front of you to give you the slides, they’ve already made up their mind that you’re going to be building them eLearning. And that’s that’s kind of what we’re, what we’re kind of doing sort of thing. So there’s a few things in place, you have to get right before you can successfully execute those conversations.

After you’ve got through the discovery process, and we’ve worked out what those business objectives are, what are the learning activities or the types of learning that you find highly effective to solve those problems?

Yeah, well, this is only something I’ve kind of really discovered in the last few years, but I’m really starting to try and flip the kind of paradigm from how I delivered training before. So I think, you know, before I knew any better, it was a case of taking the information that we wanted to teach people.

Let me start again. I think the first the first point is that there is a belief, I think that the problem that we have, or the problem that our learners have, is that they don’t know the right information. I think that’s an assumption that we all have. You know, I think we all as human beings, I think we sometimes think that if something’s not working properly, it’s because people don’t know how to do it properly.

And so I’ve started to question that assumption, you know, really flipping the model and saying, “Well, maybe there are other problems in addition to that”, right? Maybe they maybe they know how to do it, but they’re not motivated to do it. Well, maybe they know how to do it. But there’s something restricting them, I don’t have the right username password to get into the software, so they don’t bother logging in, or they’ve got pressure from management to get through a certain number of phone calls every hour so they’re not following the process correctly. Or they don’t wear their safety goggles, because every time they put them on there, their fellow colleagues take the mickey out of them because they look silly.

I mean, there’s all numbers, there’s so many reasons why somebody might not be doing something right in their job, beyond the fact that they don’t know how to do it. Obviously, knowing how to do it is important, but it could be one of many things. So I think, first of all, by questioning that.

For me, it falls into four categories. So you’ve got knowledge, skills, environment, and motivation. So this is taken from a concept called Action Mapping by a lady called Kathy Moore. She developed this this process, basically, that you can take a problem from start to finish, a training requirement from start to finish through. You can break them down to those four categories, essentially. So is this a knowledge problem? Is it skill problem? Is it an environmental problem? Or is it a motivational problem? And nine times out of 10, it’s all of them, right? It’s not, it’s not, you know, maybe they don’t know it. But also, they have never had a chance to practice it. And they don’t know, if they know the chance to practice it. They haven’t got the right environment, supporting them in it doing it properly.

So yeah, I think that’s the first thing. So going back to your question about solutions, I’ve really tried to kind of flip the model a little bit. And rather than saying, right, this is a knowledge problem, let’s feed them with information. So that was the typical approach to training is we put everything into a slide deck, and we’ll sit sit them through 57 slides, or it might be an eLearning course. They sit through the 57 eLearning slides, there might be a classroom virtual session, they sit through their two-hour Zoom meeting, and they consume, it’s all about consumption, consuming this information. And we might do an assessment at the end to prove that they’ve actually understood it and remember it.

And so rather than following that approach, I’m starting to think about performance versus knowledge. So rather than what do people need to know to do something, let’s start off with what they need to do and we’ll work backwards from there.

“Rather than what do people need to know to do something, let’s start off with what they need to do and we’ll work backwards from there.”

Let me give you an example, I’m working on a project with a marketing team at the moment. And they came to me with like a five day, four and a half days of virtual workshops. They converted all this classroom training into virtual workshops when COVID happened. So they’ve got four and a half days of like, these Zoom sessions, right? It’s a lot of, you know, they’re getting a lot of complaints, people saying it’s just too much too overwhelming, you know, we get through a few hours each day, it’s just so much to consume. So they came to me, and they said, look, you can follow this eLearning, we figure that if people do this, and they have this access to this whenever they want, they could do it an hour at a time, or they can, you know, break it down and take, you know, consume as much as they need at any given time.

But then, when we did some performance consulting, and we looked at it, we figured out well, what is it you’re trying to achieve? What they were trying to achieve was help people fill out this form properly. I mean, it sounds silly for for the half days training, but that’s what it equated to. They were trying to write a brief, like a marketing brief. And these staff were not filling, you know, they weren’t writing effective briefs, basically. So we worked backwards from there. And we said, right, rather than just cramming all this stuff into eLearning courses, which incidentally, I would, you know, if I, if I could find it, take another and I could have made a tonne of money because I could have made six hours of eLearning and got paid an absolute fortune for but you know, deep down in my gut, I knew it wasn’t gonna actually solve the problem. So I call it having that icky feeling where you just feel like a bit gross about what you’re building, because you know, it’s not actually going to do anything.

So rather than going down that path, we said, right, what is it that we want people to do? Right, we want them to be able to fill in this form correctly. Right, so let’s give them an opportunity to try it. Let’s give them a case study. Let’s get them to practice writing this out. Now. If they get stuck, if they don’t know how to do it, we’ll give them the supporting material to teach them how to do it. But let’s not treat them all as the same, let’s treat them all individually. Let’s give them the task, which is how we work in everyday life; you know, if you don’t know how to boil an egg, you go out, you figure it out. We don’t sit through a presentation to learn and then go and try it, we try it first. And then we figure out the bits that are missing.

So let’s give them this brief to write, let’s give them an opportunity to practice it. And then we will provide them with the supporting material, if they need it, to help them write the brief. And so the solutions I’m now designing are very much focused on the behaviours that we want to see people demonstrating in the workplace. And what what happens with this this type of solution is, you end up designing kind of case study-led or scenario-driven type of, you know, solutions. Which are far less content focused, it’s more about here’s an activity, go and do it. If you need some help, here’s the material.

Now all that material doesn’t need to be learning or like videos, it can be, you know, a website with, you know, information. It can have videos, it can have audio, it doesn’t really matter what the content is, right, you just, again, if you need to know how to boil an egg, you would be quite happy reading a blog post. Most people probably go on to YouTube. But if you didn’t have YouTube available, you’d be quite happy reading a blog post about it or listening to a podcast. As long as you’ve, you’ve got the information there to consume, you can go away and figure it out. So we take all that content—I call it this deconstructing the course, right—we take all that content out of the course, bit like deconstructing a meal, right. If you take a you know, a posh dish, you can dis deconstruct it and, you know, present the elements independently. Exactly the same, we could do that with learning. So we can take apart where the the course, in inverted commas if you’d like, we can give them the specific activities we want them to practice. And then we provide them with links to the reference material that they may need, in order to complete the activity to the desired standard.

And so it’s kind of flipping the model, rather than pushing all the information onto somebody, we’re giving them the opportunity to pull it out when they need it and giving them realistic opportunities to practice.

Yeah, so really focusing on the real world, how that actually functions, you know, from a case study perspective, as opposed to sort of, you know, here’s 50, slides off, you go click through it, and we’ll tick some boxes, and you’re now you know, you’ve learned this this topic, or whatever it is. Yeah, absolutely. That’s, that’s really interesting.

What would your opinion be on self-directed learning, in terms of where there’s a massive catalogue that the organisation might have procured or created against business objectives compared to where the learner is guided through potential business objectives?

Yeah, I guess it comes down to motivation. So if I, let’s imagine we’re talking about typical business. If a typical employee has access to a giant database of training, they’re only going to really access that, if they’re motivated to learn something that they see as having a direct impact in their immediate life, right. So, you know, they think that by going through that course, that will enable them to get a better job within the company or get a pay rise, or maybe leave the company and get a better job at another company, you know—that’s potentially something that they would do, right. So I guess that comes down to motivation.

Whereas the types of solutions that maybe I’ve been talking about so far in the podcast, they’re more focused on solving a specific performance problem. So we are, I guess—I mean, there’s, there’s two sides to that, because you might find that the employees are not motivated, which is the problem in itself. So employees are not motivated to do something properly, we have to get to the root cause of that, why are they not motivated? You know, is it I think some of the examples I’ve told you before, like, you know, the wearing of the safety goggles, things like that. But when people are not motivated, I think we need to design experiences that pull them into a scenario where they can see the value of achieving those skills.

“When people are not motivated… we need to design experiences that pull them into a scenario where they can see the value of achieving those skills.”

So let’s again, go back to our safety, safety goggles example. Now I’ve kind of gone down that path. Let’s imagine that we want everyone on our production line to be wearing safety goggles, because they’re, you know, dealing with hazardous chemicals, right?

Now, you could put, you know, wearing safety goggles course on your behemoth catalogue library. No one’s going to voluntarily go and do that, right? That doesn’t to me sound like something you’re going to kind of, you know, encourage people to consume. You could do kind of some kind of mandatory course which forces them to do things. So you could say, right, you’ve got to do this course, in order to keep your job, which, you know, would probably would probably work.

But what you could also do is create an experience where they actually go through a scenario. And you put them in a scenario. So you say, you know, you get there, you started work in the morning. And you know, Dave, works works next to you on the production line has asked you to carry this crate of heavy chemicals to the side of the factory. What do you do next? And you put them in a scenario, and we talk them through this scenario, okay, so you forgot to put your goggles on, you slip, and you, you know, you get chemicals in your eye, and you’re no longer able to work at a company so you have to, you know, quit your job and do something else.

So we put them through an experience where they’re like, “Oh, wow, I could really imagine that happened.” And obviously, that was me making a facility scenario. But we get these scenarios from, you know, from the production line floor. So we go and speak to people and say, we find out for people what happened when you didn’t wear your safety goggles? Oh, I actually lost my job. When we get the stories from the horse’s mouth, we find out what the stories are and then we weave those into the experiences that we design so that when people actually, you know—maybe they’re not motivated to wear their safety goggles, but we put them through an experience that hopefully energises them into, you know, wearing their safety goals in future because they’ve, they’ve seen the consequences of what happens when they don’t, oh, wow, I didn’t realise you lose your job if you steal chemicals, you know, and you get found out that you weren’t wearing safety goggles, I didn’t know that was a stackable offence kind of thing. So I’ve learned something from that experience. And maybe that would change my behaviour.

So I think the difference between what you’re saying about the big libraries and the kind of very specific solutions—I think the big libraries are great, if you’ve got people who are motivated to go and get access to that themselves. But for the more specific solutions, that’s maybe better if you’ve got people who are not motivated, then you need to figure out the root cause of the problem.

You have a really big following in the HR and learning world, you produce a lot of awesome content and you have a massive mailing list with a lot of people. Where can people learn more about what you do and have a chat?

Yeah, the best place is my website, sign up to my mailing list: antpugh.com. I email a short email every day, I just it’s specifically aimed to help unfulfilled learning designers graduate from kind of order takers into kind of high value business partners. So that’s my kind of goal, with my ultimate mission being to kind of rid the world of ineffective training.

But yeah, if daily emails are too much for you, I post quite a lot on LinkedIn as well. So you can definitely find me there.

This is a transcript from the Strategic L&D Podcast, where we venture through what key L&D opinion leaders are doing today to ensure they’re delivering a strategically impactful L&D function. If you want to stay up to date with our latest releases, subscribe to our learning and development podcast. We’re on most common podcast platforms, including Spotify and Apple. You’ll also find us in video form on our YouTube channel.

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