I first heard this catchy aphorism from Elmar Kronz of DDI at the ATD Conference in Taipei. I used it as one of the “Four Things You Must Do to Earn a Seat at The Table” in my keynote speech at the recent Center for Talent Reporting Conference in Dallas, because it seems to me that there is a great deal of wisdom packed in that short phrase.
Having to predict—and then deliver—results is an inescapable part of business.
- If you are an entrepreneur you have to predict a sufficiently exciting future to secure funding
- If you are a CEO, you have to publicly predict profits and performance months in advance
- If you are the head of manufacturing, you have to commit to producing a given number of parts at a certain cost
- As a brand manager, you have to commit to future sales targets
- And so forth, all down the line.
That is not to say it is easy, or an exact science. As Yogi Berra famously observed: “It’s hard to predict, especially about the future.”
Predicting is hard because there are so many unknowns. Even if you are the CEO, you do not control everything – all sorts of unexpected things can happen. Tough. Business leaders do not get a pass just because the future is not entirely predictable, and neither should talent development professionals.
If you want to be taken seriously and have a seat at the management table, you have to play by the same rules as everyone else:
- You need to say what you are going to do
- Sell the benefits (predict the results)
- Do what you said you were going to do (execute)
- Show that you delivered the results you said you would (prove)
Why did I use the word “sell”? Because in business, you have to sell your ideas, projects, and budgets to the others at the table. There are always competing opportunities for spending time and money. You have to make a business case for investing in learning.
David Vance’s book The Business of Learning and Rita Smith’s, Strategic Learning Alignment contain excellent advice on building and selling the business case for learning.
But predicting results is only the beginning. When I was VP of Sales and Marketing, I wasn’t allowed to just submit my business plan and then forget it.
Quite the contrary. Every month, I had to report on our progress and prove that we were, in fact, accomplishing what we said we would. And if, for some reason, we were falling behind, then I was expected to have a plan to get back on track (not just a lot of excuses).
Assessing sales results is pretty straight-forward. But what does “prove” mean in learning and development? When Andy Jefferson and I were asked to write a chapter for the new edition of Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation, we titled it “So What? Now What?”
That’s because, as business managers, we always wanted to know two things about any initiative – whether it was an advertising campaign, new manufacturing equipment, or a talent development initiative.
- So what?
- Now what?
By “So what?” we mean, “Did it make any difference for the business?” Not: Did people like it? Or “did they learn something? “ But: “Did your training initiative (and support from managers) improve anything on the job that helped our business?” If not, from our perspective, the training was a failure.
Our second question about any initiative was “Now What?” What should we do next?
- Should we do more of this kind of program?
- Something different altogether?
- Where are your data and what is your rationale?
Even if the program was a great success, we still wanted to know how you plan to do even better in the future. As Josh Bersin has pointed out, the only reason to measure anything is to inform future action.
If, as learning professionals, we want to be taken seriously and have a seat at the management table, then we need to be prepared to predict the benefits of out efforts and prove them with meaningful on-the-job evaluation of results. If we are not prepared to do that, then we will surely perish in the next economic downturn when budgets get squeezed.