Six steps to successful training course role plays

It’s not often that people turn up to training courses eager to crack on with role playing.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a delegate arrive buzzing with enthusiasm fueled by the anticipation of a decent bit of role play.

More often they express their reluctance and terror about the very idea.

Yet, despite this widespread fear and revulsion, it’s often the bit of the course that gets the best feedback at the end of the day.

So how can we make sure the role play works as well as it can, without scaring the crap out of everybody?

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First time on the rock

Last week I went to Gibraltar.

This was my first ever visit to the rock, and I was quite excited to see what it was like.

As a British resident of Spain I am often challenged as to when I might return Gibraltar to the Spanish crown. I usually patiently explain that that’s beyond the scope of my role, but also, quite aside from the legal status of the territory, I question why it is such a big deal anyway – there are anomalies all over the place for crying out loud: Ceuta and Melilla being two obvious ones.

Rock of Gibraltar

Having had these discussions (and plenty more) for many years, I was intrigued to see what the place was really like, and was interested to know if I was going to have to hide my Spain links and play up the Yorkshireman card just to get through the week unscathed!

I could not have been more wrong.

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How to keep learners engaged on training courses

Everyone seems to be down on training courses these days.

I’m not.

I think a training course can be a fantastic way to learn, as long as it’s part of a bigger effort and not just a formulaic one-off isolated event with no connection to the real world.

As Learning and Development types, how we facilitate training courses is a huge part of our job, and an important way we establish credibility.

As any trainer knows, it’s not a lot different from any other type of performance art. If you go on stage and flop, your credibility is destroyed. If you kill (in the cool sense of the word), you can be seen as a credible professional, allowing you to be influential across a whole lot more than just training course provision.

But how do we do that when the average human attention span has slipped to less than that of a goldfish (now down to 8 seconds)?

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How you measure training success might be stopping you from succeeding

What is the most important thing about the training courses you deliver?

Is it that you get good feedback? You get top marks on the happy sheet? The organisation is willing to invite you back for more work?

Probably all of the above, because this is largely how we measure our success.

But it’s not how we succeed.

We succeed when people learn, and more so when they implement that learning and improve their performance, improve the organisation, improve their lives!

People learn stuff when their ideas and assumptions are challenged, when they think differently, when they change something about themselves and the way they deliver within the organisation.

Most of us working in Learning and Development are passionate about this.

We want to change people’s professional lives and improve organisational performance, it’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. We care about the impact we can have and we strive to get better, even to the point of reading a blog post like this one, just in case there’s something we can learn from it.

Yet the way we measure our performance undermines our ability to have that positive impact.

Collusion of Mediocrity

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YouPlus: authentic(ish) leadership

Leaders are constantly being told about the importance of being authentic, and then being taught lists of key things that great leaders do.

They’re told to have vision, to lead “tribes”, or “be up to something”, and be passionate about what they want to achieve, to engage with people authentically and at the same time to apply prescriptive models and theories to inspire people and empower them to deliver results.

For all the breathy appeals to individual authenticity, training is often based on leadership techniques that mean asking leaders to behave in an inauthentic way.

When I train people on these skills and behaviours, I am often challenged about this tension between being authentic and true to oneself on the one hand, and using behavioural models and leadership skills on the other.

How can I be me, yet behave in a way that is not me?

Leadership Venn

Many answers to this question feel wishy-washy and undermine the inspiring message of developing the self, or they let aspiring leaders off the hook, letting them get away with not developing skills that are unnatural to their personality type.

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Personal development plans that actually lead to personal development

A typical personal development plan runs like this:

  1. I need time management training … so …
  2. I will do a time management course

As a personal development plan this isn’t really very good.

In fact I’d go as far as to say that it is pretty bad.

The only thing it has in its favour is a two-step structure: a need; and an activity to meet that need – but because the learning need is not properly understood, and the activity insufficient to meet the vague need, what actually happens with that plan is this:

1. Nothing

Then …

2. Quickly do a “Time management” training course five minutes before the performance management review

And then …

3. Nothing changes

I was recently delivering a workshop on building personal development plans and I introduced two key approaches that worked really well. This is nothing special, it’s just doing some proper gap analysis using coaching questions to dig deeply when defining the question and not rushing headlong to the answer.

The first question to ask is something like this:

  • What do you need to be able to do?

In the “time management” example above, the delegate hadn’t really thought it through in that sense, they just knew they were busy and quite overwhelmed with the volume of work and so needed “time management”.

Gap analysis 1

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Learning with 70:20:10 – the good, the bad and the misunderstandings

When you ask people how they want to address a learning need, they usually say they want a training course.

When you ask people how they learnt the majority of the stuff they do each day, they say they learnt it from experience.

If you dig a little deeper and ask when in their career did they learn the most and make the biggest strides in improving their performance, many will talk about a fantastic boss or mentor who challenged and supported them, helping them leap forward to a whole new level.

When we demand learning opportunities, we think training and education; yet when we look back at our most effective learning, we see exposure to other people, and the fickle mistress of experience, playing the major roles.

The best learning happens in real life with real problems and real people and not in classrooms

Charles Handy

702010 image

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I have made my peace with reality, however flawed it may be

I don’t know when I first noticed that I lacked the gene responsible for dress sense.

Illustrative example: I spent my early years insisting that a peagreen tracksuit top went well with a pair of dirtbrown cords.

If I’d known then that this was not the nadir, but rather a stopping-off point in my downward spiral to wardrobe hell, I may have sought professional help there and then.

But it got worse, much worse.

Thanks to a strange fashion quirk led by my cooler friends, I was soon seen wearing swirly blue shirts and off-white suits in a way that still now makes me make involuntary embarrassment noises when falling asleep.

As I grew my hair and turned to jeans and rock t-shirts, it felt like safer ground. I was seventeen, had long hair and a Rush t-shirt. OK, I wasn’t going to be invited onto any catwalks, but at least strangers weren’t pointing and staring in ill-disguised wonder.

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The bright side of total failure

I used to be a timeshare salesman.

This was a long time ago, and I’m proud to say that I wasn’t very good at it. I am good at getting on with people and making them trust me, but I am not so good at turning that into cash through manipulation.

This is one of my favourite things about me, but it wasn’t one of the timeshare manager’s favourite things about me.

I got fired.

I didn’t care.  I was only 25 and was enjoying have an unconventional life that involved living in the sun (a novelty for someone from Yorkshire), and so being fired from a job I didn’t want had no downside at that point in my life.

I now know that there were three problems with my employment:

  1. Our values did not match
  2. I don’t associate money with work
  3. I am not motivated by people shouting at me


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I couldn’t resist: Ann Coulter talks ignorant nonsense about soccer and the 2014 World Cup

I’ve held off from writing about Ann Coulter’s silly little column on the World Cup.

This is because a response didn’t seem to belong on this blog, which is mainly about work stuff and learning theory, but also because the article appears to be a lighthearted troll on a subject that’s not really very important.

But it kept eating away at me.

It’s ignorant, poorly researched and racist – but then you knew that, it’s by Ann Coulter.

But I couldn’t just leave it.

It nagged and nagged at me … and not because I’m a huge soccer fan (I will use the word soccer to avoid confusion), but because I loathe ignorance and bad arguments.

So, mainly for my own sanity, I decided to reply and post it here.

Coulter starts with this:

I’ve held off on writing about soccer for a decade — or about the length of the average soccer game — so as not to offend anyone. But enough is enough. Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.

I’m guessing she held off because she didn’t know anything about it, and although she still doesn’t, she decided to write about soccer because everyone was talking about soccer, so she’d get some attention.

It worked.

Not wanting to offend anyone has never bothered Coulter before – and nor should it.

That’s her best quality.

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Fragment … no suggestions

Little short sentences.

Like this one.

Drive my MS Word programme mad.

It doesn’t like it at all.

It says that they’re fragments, which is all well and good, but it doesn’t have any suggestions and sometimes fragments are actually OK.

Just like this one.

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Where’s your grammar? She’s in the front room …

I didn’t get that joke when I was a kid. I pretended to, but my grasp of language was so shoddy that such subtle humour was lost on me. My grammar was, indeed, metaphorically speaking, in the front room watching telly*.

I am of that generation that didn’t get taught grammar properly, at least thats what I was told. When I were a lad, people seemed to think that teaching had gone to the dog’s and we should be focussing on the three Rs of reading, writing and mathematics.

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Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a man blindly careering toward a midlife crisis, I was interested to read a book that sought to explain how people transition from one life phase to another.

I was particularly intrigued to learn how to do so in a healthy and reasonably normal way (not that I ever aspire to normality, but as I’m talking about territory that is personally uncharted, I’m happy to hold hands with someone who knows the best way through).

I wasn’t disappointed.

At least not initially.


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Making performance objectives measurable

Probably the single biggest challenge in setting performance objectives is making them measurable.

This is important because …

Human beings adjust behavior based on the metrics they’re held against. Anything you measure will impel a person to optimize his score on that metric. What you measure is what you’ll get

Dan Ariely article “You are what you measure” in Harvard Business Review

And if we get it wrong, it can be dangerous and lead to the measure having an ineffective, or damaging, impact …

It[‘]s really easy to decide to measure something … and screw up a team beyond belief. For example, if I measure how productive individual programmers are, then it[‘]s to the advantage of individuals to focus on their own work and spend less (or no!) time helping others. Completely kills teamwork

Brian Button (Agile programmer and blogger) in “‘You get what you measure’ versus ‘what you measure you can manage'” – article no longer accessible)

So it’s worth getting it right … but it’s not so simple …

The most important things cannot be measured

W Edwards Deming

This is even more true as most things sit within complex systems and have an impact over the long-term and so can’t be easily isolated or measured within a single twelve-month performance appraisal period.

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Flipping classrooms – silly name for a good idea?

Traditional training is based on the model where an expert trainer stands at the front and tells people stuff.

This is known as “the sage on the stage” model, or, as Brazilian Philosopher and educator Paulo Freire calls it: the Banking Concept:

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.

(Source: The Banking Concept of Education by Paulo Freire)

To put it another way, an active all-knowing speaker educates groups of passive ignorant listeners.

Freire’s conclusion is that this approach doesn’t work because …

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

This conclusion is kind of what the stupidly-named “flipped classroom” idea is about: moving away from the “sage on the stage” approach of shoving facts into passive students’ memories, to a model where the trainer becomes “the guide on the side”, helping active learners to engage socially to enquire, discuss and discover in order to build genuine understanding and deep knowledge.

Learnt taught

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Six ways to find great content for performance objectives

One of the worst things about being alive is having to write performance objectives.

As soul-destroying chores go, it’s right up there with ironing and DIY, but without the benefit of getting an ironed shirt or a wonky shelf at the end of it. All you get for your efforts is an “objective” which is usually just something measurable that no one else wants to do.

Indeed, most people’s objectives are about as demotivating to deliver as they were to write.

It needn’t be like this.

One problem (among many) is trying to find good content for objectives – this is especially true in repetitive jobs and after many years of trying to think of new things to do. It’s hard to keep coming up with anything remotely interesting or relevant, year after year, and Objectives Fatigue is likely to set in.

Objectives Fatigue (n) – having no ideas left for content to include in performance objectives

If this happens, objectives are then seen as a pointless nuisance, failing to add value to either the organization, the individual or the customer.

This post sets out six different ideas for getting good content for performance objectives.

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Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Overlong and outdated, this story is interesting to read because it was, and is, so influential on politics and – to a lesser extent – on organisational leadership, but it doesn’t really stand up on any other basis.

It starts quite well. It’s well-written and I enjoyed the early chapters about the challenges of running a railroad in 1950s America. However, the story soon deteriorates into a nonsense argument between the heroic industrialists who are talented and achievement-orientated, and the fake straw men who are spineless, stupid and corrupt.

The philosophical premise that informs this (and Rand’s theory of Objectivism) is so damn clumsy it gets quite infuriating.

The central argument is so simplistic and loaded it insults the intelligence. The good guys are hard-nosed, hard-working, focussed, and clever. They unashamedly make money and don’t apologise for it. So far so good; no problem with that. What they go on to do is reject most human relationships as unnecessary – Dagny Taggart, the most human of the “good guys” (who I quite fancied), at least admits she needs butch and uptight Hank Rearden in her bed and doesn’t mind saying so – Rearden, who needs a good slap if you ask me, insists (and insists!) that he’s only doing Taggart for his own pleasure and does not give a jot for hers. This seems very important to him. She sees this as a good thing.

Someone needs therapy.


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BIF: a simple feedback model

This post is about three things:

  • The 1 most important thing about feedback
  • The 2 types of feedback we can give
  • The 3 steps in the BIF feedback model I made up the other day

And, as a special bonus feature, 2 particular situations where we can use a variation of the model.

I wrote this post because when delivering management training, the topic of feedback often comes up. To give a quick answer with some valuable advice, I cobbled together some feedback models and developed BIF. I hope you find it useful.


What is feedback?

Feedback is information about past performance.

It is not necessarily actionable, it may be negative or positive, could be subjective or objective, accurate or a load of old nonsense … but it’s all feedback.

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Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a fast-paced high-energy onslaught of short choppy chapters that shout the argument that we are all members of tribes – groups of like-minded passionate people – and that tribes are where the energy and enthusiasm is.

Godin uses this concept as the basis for a discussion on game-changing leadership. It’s about how “heretics” can passionately and determinedly fight for what they believe in, and that if they are right, people will follow them. The point is not to seek people to lead, but to seek a disruptive idea and make it happen; the people will follow.


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Creating a learning organisation

There are many reasons why the learning organization remains so tantalizingly elusive.

Like any big idea that’s about intangible stuff like culture and attitude, the concept suffers from being a bit wishy-washy and vulnerable to the told-you-so cynics who love to point out how all the stuff isn’t perfect.

It also asks people, employees and managers, to behave in ways that are not necessarily in their own short-term best interests. It requires people to be mature, professional, think long-term, share and collaborate, and create safe environments where people can make mistakes and learn.

Not only that, it’s a staggeringly ambitious vision for an organization. The standard definitions offer a glittery utopian future that few would see as undesirable, but most would fail to even know where to start, let alone be able to put together a coherent programme that would impress the finance department.

So, I thought I’d solve all of these problem by developing a three-stage definition that would also serve as a road-map.

Learning Org

This isn’t to suggest that this is simple. It isn’t. The road is strewn with obstacles, but let us not be deterred by the difficulty of the terrain, let us break it down and get stuck in …

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