Any leader knows the only way to succeed in business is through creating systems. Good systems provide clearly documented procedures for how business is conducted. This leads to consistency for the experience of clients and customers, and a team of people who have a clear vision for success.

However…

The key word is good systems.

At any given moment, most businesses have three different types of systems:

  • Good Systems
  • Bad Systems
  • Missing Systems

And of all possible systems in your business, there is one very important one that is either poorly thought out, OR missing altogether: the system for training people on systems.

It’s not enough to have awesome systems if your team isn’t trained properly to execute them consistently. And for too many businesses, this key process is handled in an ad hoc fashion. New team members are simply sent to shadow those doing their job. Perhaps they’re assigned a senior team member to teach them what to do, without any guidance on exactly how to do that. More often than not, there’s no standardized assessments for insuring your new team members are really ready for prime time.

But if we’re not clear on what that good training looks like in your business, it doesn’t set up anyone for success.  And if this is your current approach, you’re adding extra work and frustration for your team, and getting middling results that are negatively impacting your clients.

Below are some considerations for integrating some best practices of learning. By upleveling your approach with a reproducible process, you’ll see less stress and more cohesion from your team, and happier and more successful customers and clients.

1) Prepare In Advance

When you’re doing any kind of training with your team, whether it be an onboarding module or an in-service for longtime team members, you have to prepare in advance if you want things to go smoothly.

When training happens in a makeshift manner, it’s going to be incomplete, confusing, or unnecessarily complicated. Effective training requires preparation; you must be crystal clear on what exactly you’re going to teach and how best to do it.

If it’s a training that you'll repeat (e.g. onboarding) there should be a separate teacher’s guide, so the training exists as a system and not simply in someone’s brain. No matter how talented the trainer, without an external outline, there’s no way to insure all the material required will be covered every single time. And this is to say nothing of what happens if your star trainer moves on to another professional opportunity!

Good preparation also includes creating any necessary resources and materials. Most people benefit from a combination of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning. Build handouts or slide decks in advance, so you can visually organize the information for easier absorption. By fine-tuning clear verbal explanations of information, you’ll check off the auditory box. And finally, create drills for your trainee to put their skills to the test (more below).

In the short term, all this preparation means you’ll likely spend at least as long preparing the training as delivering it. But long term, it will save you TONS of time. Not only will you (or your team) no longer be re-inventing the wheel, but your training will be get more effective over time by integrating trainee feedback.

2) Get Buy-In

As discussed in a previous post about in-services, it’s vitally important to get buy-in from your trainees upfront.  You can’t assume your trainees will automatically understand the value of what you’re teaching them. And an unmotivated learner is an ineffective learner.  You’ll need to explain WHY you’re doing the training in the first place and clarify how it’s relevant to success at their job.

By making it clear why the system exists and spelling out the desired outcomes, you’ll also help them understand if and when they need to break from the system to prioritize the true goal. While we want people to be consistent and use the systems as designed, real life is messy. It’s only by understanding the goal for a given system that your team members can think on their feet and adapt if needed.

Beyond the business goals, great training will unpack the impact of the skill or system on the trainee’s life. What’s in it for them? How will mastery of this skill or system improve the trainee’s experience at work? Related, what are the costs of not successfully mastering a given skill or system?

3) Create Opportunities for Real Time Growth/ Discomfort

This particular chestnut took a long time for me to grasp.

The MFF team spent several years asking for my trainings to be more “hands-on.” As someone that learns pretty well from listening and watching, I didn’t quite get it at first. But I’ve recently come to understand, this is where I most often trip myself up, both as a trainER and a trainEE.

Understanding a system or a process or a skill intellectually is one thing. And all in all, it’s a pretty good place to start.

But it’s entirely possible to know the steps to a system without being able to do it in practice.

All learning passes through four phases:

  • Unconscious Incompetence - You don’t know that you don’t know how to do something, and you’re blissfully unaware. (“I’ve never driven a car before but… I assume I’m pretty AWESOME at it!”)
  • Conscious Incompetence - You now know that you don’t know how to do something. DISCOMFORT! (Oh crap… I’m trying to drive but I keep crashing the car. Eek. This is awkward.”)
  • Conscious Competence - You can finally do the thing, but you really have to focus. (“Ok ok ok ok ok… I’m driving well, but I’ve got to really pay attention.”)
  • Unconscious Competence - You can do the thing AND you don’t have to think too much about it. This is mastery of a skill. (“I’m driving without thinking about it. In fact, I’m eating a taco and listening to an audiobook. This is so fun!”)

For many skills, it’s simple enough to understand what’s supposed to happen. But without the opportunity to actually practice in real time, you won’t experience the necessary discomfort of transitioning from Conscious Incompetence to Conscious Competence.

Simply put, any good training needs to have dedicated time spent practicing the skillset. The practice needs to occur at the correct level of difficulty for the trainee to be challenged, but still be successful.

Ideally this practice is followed up with some kind of immediate feedback. Which leads us to...

4) Feedback with “Liked Best/ Next Time”

This excellent tool for giving and receiving feedback is as simple as it is effective: “Liked Best/ Next Time.”

After the trainee has a go at practicing the system/ skill/ process, give them a moment to reflect by asking them two questions:

  1. What did you like best about what you just did?
  2. What will you think about for next time?

It’s important to have the trainee do this first. We want them curious and engaged in their own learning process. After they share their own perspective, the facilitator can share what they liked best and what they’d suggest to think about for next time.

There a number of benefits to this approach. For one thing, you get feedback on what’s going well. It’s human nature to focus on the negative, but if we’re looking to improve, we need to spend at least some time articulating what’s working so we can do more of it. Additionally, the framing of “think about for next time” shifts the emphasis from the potentially discouraging “what went poorly just now” to the more useful direction on “what will make the next time even more effective.”

5) Test the Training

After the trainee has time to absorb the information and practice the systems or skills in question, there needs to be some way to measure performance.

Broadly, there are two buckets we can use to determine if the trainee is successfully learning the material.

  1. Written tests or quizzes are great for measuring information retention
  2. Performance tests will make it clear if the trainee can actually perform the skill or system; most commonly accomplished via role-playing with the trainer or another trainee.

While you can also assess competency via realtime audits and on-the-job feedback, it’s far preferable to check things about before trainees practice on actual clients or customers.

The goal here isn’t a “Gotcha” style experience designed to make people anxious. The goal is to provide a fair audit of where they’re at in acquiring mastery so we can support them in the next best steps. If the test is passed, that means the trainee is ready to move on with more independence and less supervision. Alternatively, if the trainee can NOT pass, this simply means they need more training and aren’t ready to be on their own just yet.

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At the end of the day, great training won’t do much if the systems being taught are clunky and impractical. And even when the systems and training are on point, team members will require ongoing management and support to keep performing at a high level. But while having good systems and strong ongoing management are important, if you’re not training people effectively on the systems you’re missing a huge part of the equation.

And again… I only know this from learning the hard way!

Listen, not having a clear system for training doesn’t mean your business is necessarily a disaster. Perhaps you have a bunch of superstar managers that are gifted at getting new team members up to speed. You may have also hired some highly-motivated self-learners who can quickly learn the ropes with minimal structured training.

But ultimately, we need to rely on more than inspiration and raw talent. By creating a consistent and reproducible “system for training people on your systems,” you’ll be doing a much better job of setting up your new team members for success. They’ll have the chance to experience the discomfort of learning while under the supportive eye of a competent trainer. This is a far better approach than learning on the job by muddling through with paying customers and clients.

For those interested in learning more, here are some resources:

    • Care and Feeding of Superheroes - Business for Unicorn’s deep dive into all things related to building a world class team. If you want to hire, train, develop, and retain a world class team, you should consider attending.
    • ZingTrain - One of the most beneficial courses I’ve ever taken has been ZingTrain’s Bottom Line Training two-day intensive on this very topic. Highly recommend if you want a deep dive on this topic.
    • Learning How To Learn - Although not explicitly about training the trainer, this (free) Coursera course provides a great overview on what we know about how people actually learn.
    • Leveraged Learning - My pal Danny Iny’s excellent overview about the challenges with our current education system and how to improve it going forward. Particularly useful if you offer any kind of online learning to your team members. You can also read it for free HERE.