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Back in 2008, I began discussing the scientific research on “implementation intentions.” I did this first at an eLearning Guild conference in March of 2008. I also spoke about it in 2008 at a talk to Salem State University, in a Chicago Workshop entitled Creating and Measuring Learning Transfer, and in one of my Brown Bag Lunch sessions delivered online.

In 2014, I wrote about implementation intentions specifically as a way to increase after-training follow-through. Thinking the term “Implementation Intentions” was too opaque and too general, I coined the term “Triggered Action Planning,” and argued that goal-setting at the end of training—what was often called action planning—would not be effective as triggered action planning. Indeed, in recounting the scientific research on implementation intentions, I often talked about how researchers were finding that setting situation-action triggers could create results that were twice as good as goal-setting alone. Doubling the benefits of goal setting! These kinds of results are huge!

I just came across a scientific study that supports the benefits of triggered action planning.

 

Shlomit Friedman and Simcha Ronen conducted two experiments and found similar results in each. I’m going to focus on their second one because it focused on a real training class with real employees. They used a class that taught retail sales managers how to improve interactions with customers. All the participants got the same exact training and were then randomly assigned to two different experimental groups:

  • Triggered Action Planning—Participants were asked to visualize situations with customers and how they would respond to seven typical customer objections.
  • Goal-Reminding Action Planning—Participants were asked to write down the goals of the training program and the aspects of the training program that they felt were most important.

Four weeks after the training, secret shoppers were used. They interacted with the supervisors using the key phrases and rated each supervisor on dichotomously-anchored rating scales from 1 to 10, with ten being best. The secret shoppers were blind to condition—that is they did not know which supervisors had gotten triggered action planning and which received the goal instructions. The findings showed that the triggered action planning produced improvements over the goal-setting condition by 76%, almost doubling the results.

It should be pointed out that this experiment could have been better designed to have the control group select their own goals. There may be some benefit to actual goal-setting compared with being reminded about the goals of the course. The experiment had its strengths too, most notably (1) the use of observers to record real-world performance four weeks after the training, and (2) the fact that all the supervisors had gone through the exact same training and were randomly assigned to either triggered action planning or the goal-reminding condition.

Triggered Action Planning

Triggered Action Planning has great potential to radically improve the likelihood that your learners will actually use what you’ve taught them. The reason it works so well is that it is based on a fundamental characteristic of human cognition. We are triggered to think and act based on cues in our environment. As learning professionals we should do whatever we can to:

  • Figure out what cues our learners will face in their work situations.
  • Teach them what to do when they encounter these cues.
  • Give them a rich array of spaced, repeated practice in handling these situations.

To learn more about how to implement triggered action planning, see my original blog post.

Research Cited

Friedman, S., & Ronen, S. (2015). The effect of implementation intentions on transfer of training. European Journal of Social Psychology, 45(4), 409-416.

This blog post took three hours to write.

This article was originally published in Will’s Insight News, my monthly newsletter.

It has been updated and improved to include new information.

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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.

 

Click here to download the triggered-action-planning job aid (as a PDF)

Click here for a Word version (so you can modify)

 

Research:

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.