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What too many training professionals have in common with North Carolina legislators

When people don't stop to assess whether or not a problem actually exists, they can end up creating a solution that doesn't solve anything.

The so-called North Carolina bathroom bill has been all over the news since it was passed back in March. Issues involving transgender people can quickly drive high emotions on both sides of the debate, but for the sake of a learning moment, let’s put feelings and politics aside for a moment. Here is how Wikipedia has recorded the history of this piece of legislation:

  • On March 23, 2016, the North Carolina House of Representatives held a special session and passed “House Bill 2” (the bill states that in government buildings people must use restrooms according to the gender on their birth certificate)
  • About 3 hours later the North Carolina Senate also passed the bill
  • That evening it was signed by the governor

Emotions were running high. Immense resources were mobilized. An emergency session was called. And a bill was passed with supernatural speed.

Yet, there’s no data to support the idea that this was an emergency or that it was a solution that solved any real problems.

A proposed solution, with no supporting data, seeking to solve a problem that doesn’t seem to exist.

The preceding sentence can also be used to describe too many corporate learning and development initiatives.

Recently I was in an all-staff meeting when some data was shared that reflected a concerning issue with some of our efficiency metrics. After the meeting, I ran into a training specialist who I knew to actually be working on an elearning project that could address the very efficiency metrics that had just been discussed.

I asked how her elearning project was coming, and she told me she was having a difficult time moving it forward. She was being asked to upload a lot of other documents and information to our Learning Management System, so her elearning development had been put on hold.

I asked if these other projects were going to impact our efficiency metrics. The answer was no, but she had been told that there was some urgency to upload these other resources.

Like the North Carolina state government, we also found ourselves moving full steam ahead on solutions that didn’t necessarily have a problem.

I had a chance to talk politics with my wife’s uncle last year and at one point he said: “I don’t really care if it’s big government or if it’s small government. I just want it to be a smart government.”

I think the same can be said about learning and development departments. There are some, like Jane Hart, who have dared to pose the question: What would happen if there were no L&D department? On the other hand, organizations such as ATD work to support traditional training and development departments – large or small.

I think the major take-away here is that large or small, L&D departments need to work smartly. We can’t take on every training project because someone wants training. And we can’t bump more important projects because a supervisor or executive read an article or had an idea or simply because someone feels it’s important that staff have general knowledge about something.

Following are three simple questions that have helped me to slow down the amount of solutions-in-search-of-problems in my life:

  1. What’s the problem we’re looking to solve?
  2. How do we know it’s a problem?
  3. If we could wave a magic wand and solve the problem tomorrow, what could we observe that would be different?

Sometimes people with bigger titles and working at higher pay grades will want something done. That’s a fact of life that anyone wanting to hold onto their job will have to grapple with.

On the other hand, if we simply churn out solutions without ever solving any problems, we could find ourselves unable to give a good answer to the question: what value does L&D provide to us?

I highly recommend asking those three questions.

Otherwise we’re just churning out solutions in search of a problem. In other words, we’ve become the North Carolina state legislature.

Want some more potential questions to ask to determine the needs of a training program? Try: To Train or Not to Train: A Mad Lib

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