Starting With the End in Mind

The end of the year is always a good time for reflection and it seems particularly appropriate to reflect on starting with the end in mind. The concept sounds so simple but most struggle with it in practice. Basically, starting with the end in mind means establishing a plan or goal at the start of the year or project and then working backwards from the goal to determine all the events that must happen to achieve the goal. All of this would be done before the year or project gets underway, including the creation of appropriate measures. This approach is advocated by all the leaders in our field including Jack and Patti Phillips, Jim and Wendy Kirkpatrick, Roy Pollak et. al. in The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning, and many others.

So, what does starting with the end in mind look like in practice? Let’s consider first the type of learning that can contribute to your organization’s goals. Examples include sales training, cost reduction, quality improvement and efforts to improve employee engagement and leadership. Most learning professionals do set a plan at the start of the year (or course) for number of participants (a level 0 or efficiency measure). Is that what we mean by starting with the end in mind? Definitely not. Some set a target for participant reaction (a level 1 effectiveness measure) like 80% will be satisfied or highly satisfied with the learning. Is that the end? No. How about a certain pass rate or average score on testing (level 2 effectiveness measure)? Still no. A few set a goal for how much of the learning is actually applied on the job (level 3 effectiveness measure). This is much better than number of participants and levels 1-2, but it is still not the appropriate end. It doesn’t answer the questions of why the learning is being conducted in the first place.

Only impact (an outcome measure which doubles as a level 4 effectiveness measure) addresses the end, the reason for the training. Therefore, impact must be the starting point when the training is aligned to your company goals. For example, if the goal is to increase sales or employee engagement, what impact do you believe training can have on achieving the goal? A lot, a little? The greater the planned impact, the more effort and time you and the goal owner will have to dedicate to the training. And the more important it will be to set targets for all the critical steps required for success. This is where you need to decide how many employees must take the training, how satisfied you want them to be with the learning, what their minimum passing test scores must be if appropriate, and what percent must successfully apply the learning to achieve the planned impact (end). So, number of participants and levels 1-3 are all important, but they are not the end. The end is planned impact. Start with planned impact and then work backwards to determine levels 0-3 as well as roles and responsibilities for the goal owner and the learning department. (Note: Although the Kirkpatricks don’t focus on it, I know they would agree that the investment in learning must make sense financially. Jack Phillips introduced the level 5 measure of ROI to address this issue. So, we can modify our “end” to be impact that makes sense financially. In other words don’t invest in learning if it is going to cost more than the impact is worth.)

Let’s conclude our thoughts on starting with the end in mind by considering initiatives within the department to improve efficiency and effectiveness measures. Most learning departments focus on improving a couple of these measures each year. Examples might include reaching a higher percentage of employees, increasing the utilization of online courses, or improving enterprise scores for levels 1-3. In this case the end is indeed the number of participants or a higher application rate. Starting with this end in mind, the next question is what must we do to achieve this goal? Work backwards from your planned level of improvement to identify all the steps required along with appropriate resources (staff and budget), measures, and roles and responsibilities. You will need enough specificity to know each month whether you are on target to meet the planned improvement.

As this year come to an end, reflect for a minute on what percentage of your programs or initiatives were truly designed with the end in mind. If the percentage is small, you might resolve to improve in 2017.

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