David Caulfield

How to Develop a Learning and Development Vision

Learning + Development vision

What is an L&D vision?

A Learning and Development vision is one of the most powerful tools you can use to improve your organisation's learning culture. An L&D vision describes the future you want to create for your organisation. A good vision depicts 2-5 years into the future. Anything shorter term is more a short-term goal than a vision. For example, your short-term goal might be to increased your click rate by 10% in the next quarter, while your vision might be to become the leading provider of affordable education in the world.

Secondly, the L&D vision differs to the company's overall vision or "mission statement". For example, your mission statements might look like "To create great recordings of old books" or "To save people money".

Thirdly, the L&D vision is not a plan. It should not describe the steps towards achieving some goal. Its primary purpose is to communicate the future to stakeholders, colleagues and customers.

What are the benefits of a vision?

Vision Benefits

Marketing

A strong L&D vision statement is marketed to people to get everyone focused on the same destination. It gives you a starting point to make your arguments with stakeholders, managers and colleagues. People will find it much easier to help you if they get onboard with your long-term vision.

Focus

A vision brings focus to your L&D strategy and backlog. L&D leaders often find themselves with too many things to focus on. A vision gives the leader the ability to say no to things that do not align with that vision.

For example, if part of the 5 year vision is "to support the business in diversifying their customer base", then initiatives like "improve our current customer engagement" can be deprioritised. There are always an infinite number of things to work on. The L&D leader needs a method of saying no to maximise their effectiveness and focus on the high-value opportunities.

Find 'True north'

The L&D vision is the true north. A vision gives your L&D division a direction. The direction might not be 100% accurate. In fact, you can be sure it won't be. But you need to go somewhere and aim for something. We could spend days, weeks or even months analysing the best way forward. But business and needs change too quickly. L&D need to move forward quickly and adjust for change. A vision guides you for each step and decision you make.

Celebrate wins

As you move forward towards your vision, you can celebrate wins along the way. Even if your vision is something that may never be fully achieved, breaking it down into milestones gives a great sense of progress. As each milestone is achieved, you can celebrate with your team or colleagues. Metrics are important to attach to each milestone so that you know when it is accomplished.

Strive for excellence

The L&D vision should be grandiose. It should aim for something that seems just out of reach, but not something impossible. Setting a high bar will push you and your division towards something great.

How can I develop a vision?

"Start with Why"

Simon Sinek's book demonstrates why visions are so effective. Explaining people the 'what' is relatively straight forward. What are we doing? What's the next step? What's the goal?

But answers to these questions will not get people on board. Answering the "What" does not convince people to change or to join you in your mission.

Explaining the "Why" is much more important. It is also much more difficult and thus, we often either forget about it or push it away for another day. It requires a lot of thinking to define the Why. But once you have defined your purpose, it is much easier to communicate it to colleagues and stakeholders.

Obsess over the destination, not the journey

You may have heard this put in other ways: "Fall in love with the problem, not the solution". It means the same thing - the solution is not your end goal. Many L&D leaders get caught up in delivering the perfect solution. They get caught up in the journey, the analysis, the design, the delivery and the review.

These are all important aspects to L&D, but they create a "production trap" where we get caught up in the journey and forget about the destination. What happens if the problem statement changes in the morning? What if our idea had false assumptions? What if our solution needs to change? We know by focusing incessintly on the destination. Everything we design and deliver is questioned at all times: "Does this get me to my destination?".

Think Big

Big ideas inspire others. Small ideas do not. If the L&D vision is not grand enough or big enough, nobody will get excited about it. Think about Google's vision: "To provide access to the world’s information in one click." Focus on visions that add value to other people's lives. These sorts of visions inspire and grab people's attention.

It helps people

People get inspired with vision of helping themselves and helping other. The horrible cliche "making the world a better place" is perhaps one of the only statements all people can get behind. A vision statement that focuses on the person you are helping will inspire others to get on board. A great vision will get people to say "I want some of that".

Be Dangerous

An L&D vision that stays inside the lines and does not attempt to push or break boundaries is too safe. Too often, L&D are treated as one-stop training shops. If L&D wants to affect real change and change business outcomes, we need to think big and dangerously. When people ask us "This doesn't sound like a learning initiatives - why are you focusing on this?", we need to answer with a strong vision.

A realistic future

Your vision should push the boundaries to the extent that circumstances allow for them. For example, an L&D vision that says "Allow learners to download any information to their brains in an instant" is not supported by any realistic technology (yet). Similarly, a vision that focuses too conservatively is no good: "Help teams to learn together". A great vision should push the boundaries while remaining in the realm of possibility.

Changing vision = Weak vision

An L&D vision that changes or iterates means that it was a weak vision to begin with. A good vision needs to be feasible. Challenges will still come up, but the vision should be able to withstand. A vision that iterates and changes because the challenges are too great means either the vision is weak or the people aren't actually behind it. Having said this, the journey can always change. The details are not set in stone and the strategy can (and should) iterate constantly. But the destination should always remain.

Ingredients to a compelling L&D vision

Vision Ingredients

Time

A great L&D vision is an exploration process. You cannot hope to create it in one sitting. If you rush your vision without giving it time to soak in, you won't be able to argue in its favour and it will feel flimsy.

Write and rewrite, then rewrite again

As you take the time for your vision to soak in, it needs to be hammered out. Writing down your vision is the best way of adding depth to it. Furthermore, without writing it down, how will you know if it makes sense or not? Most proposals I have sound silly once I have them written down. I'm writing a new L&D vision as we speak. I look back at the first draft I showed my manager and cringe at how little sense it made. I'm on my 6th draft now and it's finally beginning to take shape and make sense to the business.

Stakeholders buy-in

Stakeholders need to be involved early on so that they can get a sense of what you are trying to achieve. Early and frequent conversations with stakeholders gives them the context they need to understand your vision. If you come at them with the vision statement, they will wonder where it came from. Bringing them through the journey will help them agree with your final vision and give you buy-in when you start executing the strategy.

Start with Why

I make this mistake all...the...time. It's infuriating each time it happens again. Why do you have this vision in front of you? What is the point of saying you want to create a culture of learning and innovation? Why does it matter to anyone who you talk to? If you get the why down, it will be much easier to get a what. Furthermore, the what will really matter rather than look like a bumper sticker.

Take the leap

No L&D vision can be validated up front. If that were possible, it probably means the vision is too small or short-sighted. The vision should be for 3 to 5 years into the future so that it drives people towards something meaningful.

Become exhausted reminding people

People Need To Be Reminded More Often Than They Need To Be Instructed. - Samuel Johnson As leaders, we don't like repeating ourselves. Phrases like "As I said before" or "Going back to my last point" tell people that we are frustrated when we have to repeat ourselves. But leaders have no choice - we have to continuously repeat ourselves. This is important when evangelising a vision. We need to have our ducks in a row - then we need remind everyone what our ducks look like. Remind people of the vision again, and again, and again. Ideally, you should be able to write out your vision in a sentence and explain in through an elevator pitch.


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