Supporting Business Transformation with the 5 Moments of Need

This blog is generated from the Performance Matters Podcast episode titled “Supporting Business Transformation with the 5 Moments of Need”. In it, Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson, PhD, RwE interview John Townsend, the Vice President and Head of Business Transformation for FuturePlan by Ascensus, about his lessons learned and guidance for L&D professionals who are working to transform their own organizations.

Bob Mosher (BM): We are honored to be joined by John Townsend, the Vice President and Head of Business Transformation for FuturePlan by Ascensus. John is one of our heroes in the business and a dear friend who's done remarkable work. John, welcome. 

John Townsend (JT): Thanks, Bob and Con. It's always an honor to spend time with you, and thanks so much for all you’ve contributed to my capabilities and my success. It’s just an honor to be part of this program and chat with you today. So, thank you. 

BM: Those are kind words! It's a mutual admiration. 

Conrad Gottfredson (CG): The thing that's been wonderful about our association with you, John, is you came to us from a very different viewpoint. We started working with you as a representative of your business vs. its learning group. It has been a wonderful experience to have your business perspective as we've worked on some significant projects with you. 

BM: And this is a perspective L&D needs. That's one reason why we invited you here and are so excited about this conversation. Tell us about your journey and why you have a passion for this thing called business transformation. 

JT: I wanted to be a teacher from the earliest part of my career. When I went to college, I worked as a tutor, etc. And then as I got into business, I found I was training. I had a gift for communicating and training and helping people align with processes and procedures. So, I did a lot of that early in my career. As I grew in my leadership roles throughout several organizations (all in financial services), I even had a stint where I led an L&D department. So, training and performance are near and dear to my heart, and I see them as inextricably connected. You can't have training without performance, and you can’t have performance without training. But the magic and what I've really appreciated about working with you and Con and the team at APPLY Synergies is the perspective of, “Well, that's great in concept, but how do you apply that? How do you get the application of that?” Because from a business perspective, that's all that matters. 

I started running large-scale operations in contact centers where we had a lot of turnover. I kept thinking about what I could do to address that, because eight weeks in a training room is costly and doesn't guarantee that the person who sits there comes out the other side ready to perform. So, we spent a lot of time in my former organizations trying to fill that gap by building layers of content. Business tends to see everything as a training problem, but training is just one component of performance. There's also support, management, and all sorts of things that go into that. There's also experience complexity: the more you perform a task over time, the less ambiguity exists around that task and the more confident you become. So, all those things are in my background. 

Here at Ascensus FuturePlan, we've had a wonderful opportunity to grow through a lot of acquisitions, so we have a lot of different cultures, teams, and mindsets all coming together at once. In my new role as Head of Business Transformation, I get to take a step back and look at the confluence and how people, process, and technology all come together. Of course, underneath all of that is learning and performance support. It all comes together for me, and it all needs to be part of that solution set to get the value and the results that you want. 

CG: John, we hear the word “transformation” a lot. As Head of Business Transformation, what does the word transformation and the area of business transformation mean to you—from an organizational perspective? 

JT: Simply put, it's mindset. We do change really well in business. In fact, we do it too well sometimes, and to our detriment. We change, change, change—but change doesn't mean transformation. That is something that happens from within. It's a mindset shift. In the field of learning and development, mindset is important too: introducing a new concept, a new strategy, and/or a new way of doing work is important. But what we found is that despite spending a lot of time developing great technology, writing rigorous business processing, and doing a lot of training, those things alone don't make people transform. 

In my mind, from a business perspective, it’s not only about having great training and great performance support processes and systems. You also really need to focus on the human aspect, because at the end of the day, the one constant in any change is the person, the human, the actor. Having the business focus on helping people transform and feel comfortable—while reducing their ambiguity and increasing their understanding of why and how what they’re doing connects to the bigger picture, especially as change is happening faster and more dramatically—is really, really important. To me, transformation is mindset, and you don't transform your business until you've hit that last button. It's the hardest and most elusive to reach. When we ask why most change initiatives fail, research shows us it’s because you can do everything right, but if you don't transform the human actor in that sequence, you're never going to get the throughput you deserve. It takes a lot of work from an organizational perspective to make that happen. 

CG: A good friend of ours, Tim Clark, once told me, “Leaders aren't hired to maintain the status quo. Leaders are hired and put in place to make things better.” At the heart of that is a human being. We've got to learn how to lift them up and help them find internal motivation to change. 

BM: John, you've always been a remarkable champion of the 5 Moments of Need (5 MoN). For me, that resonates so well with your idea of the complete learner who is addressing all 5 Moments. When it comes to these transformations, how has 5 MoN fit into this shift in your role that you’ve just described for us? 

JT: First of all, I'm making sure that as we move forward, we are leveraging the knowledge and capabilities that the 5 MoN framework provides us. It's changed how I look at things. Again, I was part of the problem. As a business owner, I just kept thinking everything was a training problem. Bob, you talk about “train, transfer, sustain” (and grow), which is really what the business needs. The trainer or the instructional designer could do a wonderful job of doing everything right, but there's still frustration because the business isn't seeing performance. There's that critical moment of Apply. Learning New and Learning More—we got those covered really well, and we cover what to do when things change and when someone gets stuck. But where it really comes together from a businessperson’s perspective is at the moment of Apply. Things are changing so rapidly now in every business line! I don't care who you are, the old model of training and marinating, and then moving into production and then coming back for more training doesn't really exist anymore. You have to learn by doing, and we need support for that. 

Having a 5 MoN approach recognizes that the learner turns into a performer the second they're done with their learning exercise, and that’s when they need to transfer their learning. That's scary. All change, no matter how large or small, is a stress factor for anybody. Reducing that ambiguity and unfamiliarity as quickly as you can and supporting people to get to that point of optimization is really how to get your best business results. If you don't understand that and you miss that critical part—if you only do the training and measure the output, but you don't stop and think about the throughput—you’re missing out. You need to support people so that new knowledge and new ways of doing things are no longer ambiguous, hard, or uncertain. There needs to be a very deliberate approach to solving for that and 5 MoN has helped us see it that way, frame our perspective that way, and then take action as a business to do it that way.   

CG: John, if you were to give counsel to learning leaders and learning professionals on how they could become critical to the business and seen as strategic partners in the business, what advice would you give them? 

JT: I'll use a golf analogy for just a little bit. You’ve got to walk the course backwards. You’ve got to start from the green where the pin is and then you see things differently as you walk backwards. By that, I mean the business has always focused on the outcome and not the journey to get there. It sees training as the tee box where they're going to start, and then something magical is going to happen in the middle, and then they're going to get on the green and the ball is going to be in the hole. But you can't see that until you walk the course backwards. 

What I would tell our learning development partners is what I've learned the hard way: L&D needs to be present as business is coming up with strategy, ideas, and KPIs. Understand the KPIs. What are you trying to achieve? Why are you trying to achieve that? How does that align with your strategic mission and goals? We spend a lot of time focusing on that alignment, but if the learning partner doesn't have that perspective, their tee shot is going to be errant and off course. So, you start there and then you bring them back for questioning about how changing a business process, introducing a new concept, or upskilling the workforce faster is going to tie directly to the desired business outcomes. It may sometimes feel like a very obvious answer, but by asking those questions, you start walking backwards. Then, you realize that what you need from a training perspective is to create the foundation. How do you then create the learning support and harness your managers, your coaches, your knowledge, resources, and artifacts? Because we can get you out to a tee box, but that doesn’t mean we're helping you get all the way through to the end. L&D professionals often don't quite have that assertive perspective, and you need to, because otherwise the business will not see it. You have to almost be the guides that help the business walk that course backwards. I think if you can master that skill set as an L&D professional, you're going to feel better about the work that you do, and I think you're going to provide much better results for your business partners. 

BM: It's such a brilliant metaphor. So many L&D professionals see themselves as handcuffed when it comes to their reach and impact. It’s that tee box idea that once they leave my domain (e.g., my classroom or my LMS), they're out of my control. We also get whacked about a lack of business acumen. We don't know the business or how to walk back from what gets a CFO and a CEO up every day (i.e., the business outcome beyond the corporate goals that are stated every year). If you want to run this metaphor out, there are 18 holes on a golf course. You don't just go, “Oh, we're playing Pinehurst tomorrow.” You go, “We're playing Pinehurst five and I want to go with eight teams like this and seven teams like that. Plus, there's a hazard on 16.” That gives you insight into going back to the tee box and starting like you never have before. 

JT: And L&D isn't just producing content. Because we're learning professionals, we understand how the human brain takes in and applies information. That practice also applies to your business, including teaching leaders how to think and act differently. I know that may seem like a daunting task, but I think you’ll benefit from having those conversations and dialogues. We've got a phenomenal learning support partner now and she already naturally gravitates to this process. Before, we’d say, “Chris, we need training designed.” She’d say, “Before I even have a conversation with you, tell us what you are trying to achieve. What does success look like? If at the end of this you execute, is it six months from now? Is it three weeks from now? Is it tomorrow?” She already naturally (thankfully) has that approach, and our organization thankfully supports that process. 

Have that conversation, whether it’s your lead learning professional, your chief learning officer, or whomever. Make sure that you're setting those expectations with your business partners. Say, “In order for us to serve you better, we're going to do things a little bit differently. We're going to start with the end in mind. We're going to ask you a lot of questions, because when we do, we're going to find those traps and those hazards that we want to avoid, and we’ll help you design a better learning program. But more importantly, we're going to help you use learning as the launchpad—as a tee box if you will—to achieve the desired goals and results.” I don't think that happens if you just sit in your silos and work. 

BM: Let's peel this onion. I love where you're going. You are such a brilliant practitioner and one of the more pragmatic leaders with whom we've had the good fortune to work. Share your best practices around your transformation journey. What does this mean to businesses now? What are some roadblocks to anticipate and what are your lessons learned? 

JT: We learn through a lot of failure, right? Oftentimes, failure is the greatest teacher. From my experience. I can share two things that I've really been focused on. One is that you've got to be a really good storyteller. There's a great book that I'll reference by Chip and Dan Heath called Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. It’s about how you make “sticky” ideas and I've leveraged that content for several years. I think the book has been out for about a decade. It talks about how everyone at all levels is bombarded with inputs and stimulus from 9,000 directions. There's noise in our personal lives. There's noise in our corporate lives. There's a lot of noise everywhere, and you have to confront that. You need to acknowledge that. Doing more of the same thing and communicating the way that you've always communicated is only going to be noise. I've tried to use a lot of the practices that I've I learned from that book. For example, how do you frame ideas? How do you approach stakeholders and give them “elevator pitch” kinds of bullet points as things that will become sticky ideas? Then, as they're being bombarded with lots of different things, they have a very simple way to come back to your message. Like, “Oh, John. What are we talking about with transforming the annual administration process? You said that there were three steps, right? Input, output, throughput…”and I'm making this up, but it gives them a trigger and something to stick to. My COO has a lot of responsibilities. There's lots of information passing across his desk, so I found that one of my chief obligations to move and transform business is to help create sticky ideas. That takes a lot of thought and practice. So that's one lesson learned. 

The second is that I draw a lot of pictures. I've gotten really, really good at PowerPoint. I write a document first because that's my background (I write things out), but then I have to translate that thought into pictures. You have to show people what you mean because people are coming at your ideas, your concepts, and your change initiatives with a lot of different stakeholder needs. Some want data, so I've got to have a spreadsheet version ready to go for them. Some want to see the big picture, so I've got to have a visual ready for them. And some (very few) are the introverts, like me, that want to deeply read, consider, and think through a document. So, you have to consider your audience. 

To sum up, 1) focus on “ideas made to stick” and how you frame them, and 2) understand your medium for conveying those ideas and really understand your stakeholders. I will even ask stakeholders things like, “It seems to me, Bob, that you're a visual learner. Would you prefer if I present things to you in this fashion?” I think the more I've asked those questions, the greater success I've had with breaking down barriers. I'm doing it right now. Literally, before we started this conversation, I was in the middle of translating an Excel document with rows of data into a Word document and into a PowerPoint. It takes time, but I think if you do that on the front end, it will save you so much swirl and so much churn on the back end. I think it's a great investment of time. Those would be my two points. 

CG: John, I remember when you flew out to Sundance in Utah, and you and I rolled up our sleeves to figure out how to communicate to the leadership of your company in a manner that would help them envision a new way of doing things (and actually fund that new approach). This is the great challenge, right? You're talking about stakeholders and communicating to stakeholders. The leaders of an organization are the ones that control the priorities and the funding of those priorities. So, in addition to that guidance you just gave us, what is it that key leaders in organizations are looking for? What trips their acceptance and gains their approval? You've walked that journey. Your transformation and your ability to move and transform an organization is really tied to getting the approval and the support of leaders. Any advice there? 

JT: Thanks, Con. Again, I don’t think I wouldn't have gotten there without the collaboration with you and Bob over the years to help me understand the impact of performance support and envisioning new ways of working, so thank you for that. 

What I see is that today's CEO, CFO, COO, and all C-suite executives are bombarded with pressures that are ten times what they were even a decade ago and certainly more than they were twenty years ago. I think understanding their “why’s” is the most important thing. How are they going to defend a decision to spend “X” number of dollars here versus there, and what is the risk? This is what they're thinking all the time: “I have choices. I have a limited budget, and I've got to produce certain outcomes from that. Where's the next best spend on my dollar?” We know that’s what they're thinking, and that's probably not changed too much, except I think the tolerances for failure or are much tighter than they ever used to be in corporate America (and probably around the world as well). 

Secondly, they’re thinking, “How do I defend the decision?” Because they don't know that an investment in “A” or “B” is going to produce value until they can look back on it and see what happened. So, they think, “How do I defend this decision? Why would I trust this guy, John, who's telling me he's got the greatest thing since sliced bread?” I understand that challenge. I don't take that personally and wonder why they don’t believe me. I see that as an opportunity to say, “Alright, I understand what the executive’s needs are. I know that she's going to need to know this and be able to defend her decision. I need to help give her the inputs that she needs to mount that defense.” 

For me, in terms of learning support at a high level, how many people do we have in our organization? Today, my organization's overall count is over 5,000 people. We sit in two different countries. We are an assimilation of lots of different cultures that have come together pretty rapidly to drive towards a single point of view. That's a lot of change in the system. That's a lot of reconnecting. That's a lot of transformation. What is the cost of them being stuck as performers? How do we help them if we just have a ten percent improvement over that? If you look at your salary run rate, that's “X” amount of dollars. Doesn't it therefore seem logical that if we can help them perform better, reduce their training time—their offline, non-productive time—and get them into the work stream where they’re being productive and confident with less burnout, less attrition, and better client satisfaction, that those benefits make the case for an executive’s support? Those are some of the things that I've tried to build into my narratives and storyline to help them say, “Okay, you've got a reasonable objective cost model.” I don't try to overcook the books and say, “If you give me this, I'm going to produce this in return.” But there's also a really solid argument for why this is a thoughtful and objective decisioning process that lets them get comfortable with the decision. 

When you as a learning professional or a businessperson are bringing an idea to leaders, I think it's often seen as being your idea. Then it becomes about how much they trust you or how well they know you. That’s really not what it's about. It's about the conveyance of the idea, whether it's me sending the idea, or Bob or Con sending the idea, or anybody sending the idea. What is the story? Let's strip away the relationship side and look at the factual arguments. If you can make a strong business case for how it's going to help drive your objectives and you can also demonstrate that your approach for getting to that decision or getting to that perspective was thoughtful, objective, and complete, I think you go a long way into gaining executive support and the resources you need to transform your business. 

BM: You know, every time we reengage with you, my friend, we're reminded why you're so successful and a wonderful leader. You have the humility that I think L&D professionals need to have to do what we do well; yet you are a student of the trade, and you back up your work with really remarkable, sound advice. Let's put a bow around all this. What are three things an L&D team and leaders need to start thinking about or understanding if they want to be part of “transformation” or digital transformation? We attach this buzzword “transformation” to everything nowadays! As you've said so eloquently in this podcast, L&D should be at the center of that but so often it’s not. What advice would you give for folks to better align with that? 

JT: First, thank you for your very kind remarks. It's always a pleasure and I've gained so much from working with APPLY Synergies. Coming up with three things is kind of tough, but I think one is that the business is not going to understand in general how to partner with the L&D community, especially considering where it's going (e.g., APPLY Synergies is on the cutting/leading edge of realizing that traditional models are outdated and is coming up with new ways of working). So, number one is that you have to be your own best advocate. You have to get comfortable with that and have in-person conversations, if possible. Grab lunch and talk about it! You need to engage others and get in the room. 

Two is that you need to start asking questions like we talked about before with our golf course metaphor. You've got to start at the end with the end in mind and get really good about asking questions around objectives, goals, and what this looks like when it's done. Ask how it looks after workers come out of training. We can train them on whatever the business wants, but after they come out of training, what does that look like? How are we going to monitor and measure things? What kinds of feedback go into the system? You need to get good at being almost a consultant as opposed to just a content developer. 

Lastly, number three is that in this distributed environment, where so many of us are not collocated and learning is occurring in multiple mediums and across streams, make sure that there is a transformation check-in process with learners. In other words, “We've presented the content. We've walked you through it. You've done side by sides. You've done whatever it is to get your level of proficiency.” Make sure you also stop and ask, “How does that feel?” I think that should absolutely be the domain of the business, but I think learning professionals would do a lot to ask emotionally intelligent questions, which are not about whether learners liked the training or if it was effective. These questions need to be more on the emotionally intelligent side of how learners feel about their experience and their confidence. We want people articulating that. 

If learning professionals do those three things I listed, I think you’ll find the L&D community will have much better success. You'll find some resistance along the way but have faith and be persistent. Great organizations will come to embrace and see the value and the benefits of having L&D and Performance embedded in their work streams all the way through from beginning to end. It doesn't stop at the beginning. It really carries all the way through the performance at the end. 

BM: Courageous learners. That’s what we need to create these days, isn't it? We can't thank you enough for your authenticity and your willingness to take time out of a very busy schedule to share your remarkable experiences over the years. It's been a blessing to work with you along the way and we look forward to where that goes. For our listeners, who I know will replay this one over and over, we can't thank you enough. 

JT: It's been my pleasure, and mutual respect and admiration for both of you and for the great work that APPLY Synergies does. Thanks again and I look forward to connecting with you soon. 

CG: Thanks, John.

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