This article was originally published in Will’s Insight News, my monthly newsletter.
It has been updated and improved to include new information.
Radically Improved Action Planning
Using Cognitive Triggers to Support On-the-Job Performance
Most of us who have been trainers have tried one or more methods of action planning–hoping to get our learners to apply what they’ve learned back on the job. The most common form of action planning goes something like this (at the end of a training program):
“Okay, take a look at this action-planning handout. Think of 3 things from the course you’d like to take away and apply back on the job. This is critically important. If you feel you’ve learned something you’d like to use, you won’t get the results you want if you forget what your goals are. On the handout, you’ll see space to write down your 3 action-planning goals. I’m going to give you 20 minutes to do this because it’s so important!”
Unfortunately, that method is likely to get less than half the follow-through that another–research based–method may get you!
When we as trainers do action planning, we are recognizing that learning is not enough. We want to make sure that all of our passionate, exhaustive efforts at training are not wasted. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that if our learners forget everything they’ve learned, then we really haven’t been effective. This goes for e-learning as well. There’s a lot of effort that goes into creating an e-learning course–and, if we can maximize the benefits through effective action planning, then we ought to do it.
Before sharing with you my radically improved action-planning method, it’s critical that I motivate it. Look at the above diagram. It shows that the human mind is subject to both conscious and sub-conscious messages. It also shows that the sub-conscious channel is using a broader bandwidth–and when humans process messages consciously, they often filter the messages in ways that limit the effectiveness of those messages.
One of the most important findings from psychological research in the past 10 years–I hate to call it “brain science” because that’s an inaccurate tease–is that much of what controls human thinking comes from or is influenced by sub-conscious primes. Speed limit signs (conscious messages to slow down) are not as effective as narrowing streets, planting trees near streets, and other sub-conscious influencers. Committing to a diet may not be as effective as using smaller dishes, removing snacks from eyesight, and shopping at farmer’s markets instead of in the processed-food isles of grocery stores.
We workplace professionals tend to use the conscious communication channel almost exclusively–we think it’s our job to compile content, make the best arguments for it’s usefulness, and share information so that our learners acknowledge its value and plan to use it. But, if a large part of human cognition is sub-conscious, shouldn’t we use that too? Don’t we have a professional responsibility to be as effective as we can?
My action-planning method does just that. It sets triggers that later create spontaneous sub-conscious prompts to action. I’m calling this “Triggered Action Planning”–a reminder that we are TAP-ping into our learners’ sub-conscious processing to help them remember what they’ve learned. SMILE.
The basic concept is this: We want learners, when they are back on the job, to be reminded of what they’ve learned. We should do this by aligning context–one of the Decisive Dozen research-based learning factors–in our training designs. We can do this by using more hands-on exercises, more real work, more simulations–but we can extend this to action planning as well.
The key is to set SITUATION-ACTION triggers. We want contextual situations to trigger certain actions. So for example, if we teach supervisors to bring their direct reports into decision-making, we want them to think about this when they are having team meetings, when they are discussing a decision with one of their direct reports, etc. The SITUATION could be a team meeting. The ACTION could be delegating a decision, asking for input, etc., as appropriate.
In action planning, it’s even simpler. Instead of just asking our learners what their goals are for implementing what they’ve learned, we also ask them to select situations when they will begin to carry out those goals. So for example:
- GOAL: I will work with my team to identify a change initiative.
- SITUATION-ACTION: At our first staff meeting in October, I will work with my team to identify a change initiative.
Remarkably, this kind of intervention–what researchers call “implementation intentions”–has been found to create incredibly significant effects, often doubling compliance of actual performance!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I think this research finding is so important to workplace learning that I’ve devoted a whole section of my unpublished tome to considering how to use it. Instead of using the term “implementation intentions”–it’s such a mouthful–I just call this trigger-setting.
The bottom line here is that we may be able to double the likelihood that our learners actually apply what they’ve learned simply by having our learners link situations and actions in their action planning.
New Job Aid for Triggered Action Planning
You can easily create your own triggered-action planning worksheets or e-learning interactions, but I’ve got one ready to go that you can use as is–FREE OF CHARGE BECAUSE I LOVE TO SHARE–or you can just use it as a starting point for your own triggered-action-planning exercises.
Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 69-119.
Bjork, R. A., & Richardson-Klavehn, A. (1989). On the puzzling relationship between environmental context and human memory. In C. Izawa (Ed.) Current Issues in Cognitive Processes: The Tulane Floweree Symposium on Cognition (pp. 313-344). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Roediger, H. L., III, & Guynn, M. J. (1996). Retrieval processes. In E. L. Bjork & R. A. Bjork (Eds.), Memory (pp. 197-236). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Smith, S. M., & Vela, E. (2001). Environmental context-dependent memory: A review and meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 8, 203-220.
Thalheimer, W. (2013). The decisive dozen: Research review abridged. Available at the Work-Learning Research catalog.