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How to Design Training That Sticks

President Of TrainSmart, Inc.

Even if you haven’t ridden a bike for a couple of decades, once you know how to ride one, the skill doesn’t escape you.  By stickiness standards, few pieces of training will ever top learning how to ride a bike. It’s not just that it’s a skill that is indelibly inked into our brains, many of us can remember minute details of that training experience.

Ask most people to share how they learned to ride a bike and to a person, they will tell you in great detail about that training- even if the training occurred half a century ago.  They probably know exactly how old they were. They may know the color and make of the bicycle. They usually can name their trainer and most important; they can recapture the sense of jubilation they experienced when they realized they were pedaling on their own.

As professional trainers, we would love to create learning experiences with that much staying power. By studying and understanding what makes bicycle training so sticky—we can take those lessons and apply them to training that we design and develop.

The training results in learning a new and desired skill. The key word is “desired.”

Whether It’s an intrinsic need for independence, or the “me too” factor for children who have older siblings, the motivation to learn how to master the bike is universal.

In adult training, the motivation to learn what is being offered may be non-existent. People who attend training, because it’s a requirement rather than a desire to learn what is being taught, can be easily distracted and simply go through the motions of the training to successfully check it off their list.

One of the best ways to increase the attitude of attendees is to communicate ahead of time and share the strategic importance of the training. Attendees need to know when they walk into the training room or turn on the webinar that the time is going to be well spent and beneficial to their career.

Whether the skill being taught will now be part of the annual performance review or a requirement for getting to the next level in management, people who are overloaded at work, dealing with “fires” and generally believing their time could be better spent elsewhere, need to understand why it’s important to invest time attending the training.

Sending these pre-session communications can change attitudes and when people come in with a more open-minded attitude the chances of information sticking is greatly enhanced.

Stickiness requires learning a new habit

“It’s just like riding a bike” is part of our vernacular. Symbolic of a learned skill that lasts a lifetime. One of the reasons for riding a bike earned the stickiest of sticky training skills is that most kids made riding their bike a daily habit.  In the best-selling book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explores the psychology of habits. It turns out that for every habit there is a cue, a routine, and a reward. For a young child, the cue for riding their bike could be “I want to go to my friend’s house.” The routine would be to get their bike off the garage and ride it down the street, and the reward was to play with their friends.

To make sure your training sticks like bike riding, you want to demonstrate to participants how they can make it a habit. You need to break down the skill into its cue, routine, and reward.  One of the roles of a trainer who wants their training to stick is to help the participants visualize how this skill can be seamlessly incorporated into their daily work life.

The Training Cannot be a One-Trick Pony

Whether it’s a time management skills training or one that focuses on highly technical skills, a single training event—even one that lasts multiple days– cannot be expected to create the kind of mental imprint that results in the information sticking. Some would argue that the longer the training session, the greater the need to provide follow-up. From our vantage point, some kind of refresher should be incorporated into the training plan regardless of the length of the original training, people simply forget what they’ve learned.

According to the research, participants will forget 75% of what they learned in just one week. Think back to those days when you successfully learned how to ride a bike.  Once most of us learned, we practiced the skill daily.  It would be a rare situation that a child learned how to ride their bike and then didn’t ride it regularly.

The same goes for any skill – particularly those we learn at work. For a new skill to stick, you have to practice using it. In the past, the onus was on the participant to figure out for themselves how to use the new skill. That’s probably an unrealistic expectation. Having some sort of follow-up refresher, check-in or coaching session is essential to combat the natural tendency for people to forget.  It shouldn’t just be a one-time follow-up.  If having employees learn a new skill is vital to the organization either because it directly impacts business results or indirectly by improving the culture, then its imperative to communicate on a regular basis why this skill needs to be mastered.

Formalize Peer Collaboration

While children typically learn to ride a bike from an adult, they master slides, wheelies, and jumping from their peers. When I’m training, I often ask at the end of each training module for participants to share one to three things that they will take away from the past 50 minutes of learning. Invariably, there is a divergence of topics that “stick” with participants. For each participant, the topics that don’t resonate are likely to become the 75% they forget in the next week. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Creating a formal peer collaboration program where peers learn along with others, not from an instructor or expert can help introduce individuals to aspects of the training that they “forgot” in the formal training. Think about using any software. We all have the go-to shortcuts that we use. Then, someone else shows us a new shortcut that we can add to our toolkit. For whatever reason, we didn’t initially remember our peer’s favorite shortcut when it was introduced to us in the training. Now, once we see our peer using it, we are ready to have this additional information “stick.”

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