The L&D Playbook on Transforming Organizational Development through Experiential Learning
March 16, 2021
“I got into Learning and Development (L&D) for my very cheesy love of working with people,” admits Mikayla Posk. “I’m constantly thinking about what motivates people and what I can do to help them and learn from them.”
Previously a Learning and Development (L&D) Program Manager at Doordash, Mikayla now specializes in Organizational Development as a consultant at The People Piece, a people development partner for high-performing teams at Dropbox, Pinterest, and more. Through an extensive discovery process, The People Piece develops highly customized training programs to help organizations overcome challenges related to culture, communication, and team dynamics.
In this exclusive interview, Mikayla explains:
- What it means to humanize work
- How to diagnose a team’s development needs
- Tips to enable and identify L&D champions
- The guiding principles of facilitating experiential learning
- Two step-by-step guides to team development activities
Build the groundwork for your L&D program
Designing L&D initiatives is often easier said than done, especially when trying to address complex, multifaceted, and often undiagnosed issues. Mikayla recommends three easy steps to get started: “collect the data, talk to people, and get really clear with team leaders about what their goals are.”
Recognize the human in every employee
As far as Mikayla sees it, the process of listening and digging into what people are experiencing behind-the-scenes serves to “humanize” work. “We’re so focused on how much we can accomplish and how much we can fill our days—feeling burned out is almost seen as this badge of honor. But there’s this whole other side of human capacity that is very passive and still, it’s necessary for creativity and productivity,” reflects Mikayla.
For effective organizational and team development, Mikayla believes there needs to be an emphasis on helping people achieve more harmony in their work. For her, organizational development is about “how we can create a balance of striving and upleveling, while also allowing people to just be human and pursue passions outside of their job.”
Analyze the employee experience
To discover what employees are experiencing, Mikayla suggests looking at existing data about team dynamics and employee sentiments. Pulse surveys, employee engagement and satisfaction surveys, and 360 performance reviews often offer a glimpse into what teams are experiencing behind-the-scenes. “Any kind of existing qualitative and quantitative data can give you an initial snapshot into what might be going on,” says Mikayla. Beyond that, you should also seek new opportunities to capture and measure data that will allow you to eventually show the impact of your program has on business outcomes.
It’s so important to find data points in L&D because it is this notoriously abstract thing to have to create a really clearly articulated goal around. Data really becomes the North Star of anything that you’ll end up designing, so it’s important to be really clear about it.
Mikayla also emphasizes the value of connecting with as many stakeholders as possible to get their perspectives on what problems and opportunities exist in the organization. Get diverse perspectives and “give people the space to share,” says Mikayla.
She explains that “As L&D leaders, our most effective communication tool is our ability to absorb and listen.” The insights of team members help Learning and Development (L&D) leaders discover where teams experience disconnect and conflict. “There’s no reason for us to pretend to be the experts on another team,” says Mikayla. “Instead, we should focus on listening to everything team members are willing to share without bias or assumptions, until you have a clear sense of the whole picture.”
Secure executive buy-in for Learning and Development (L&D)
To establish an effective Learning and Development (L&D) program, you need executive buy-in. While organizations are increasingly investing in their L&D programs, leaders often need to be reminded to prioritize initiatives. When educating leaders on the value of L&D programs, Mikayla recommends working to identify their goals and motivations. “Leaders care about something,” says Mikayla. “So if you’re able to get clear on what exactly they care about, you can position yourself to talk about L&D in a way that shows how investing in it will actually help them accomplish their goals.”
Taking a more drastic approach, you can also explain to leaders how not investing in development can actually become a detriment to the organization. “If there are issues or gaps in your people’s skills and motivations, you will not be able to accomplish your company goals. Companies exist because people put in the work to make it great, and there are always opportunities to uplift and support our teams to be their best,” says Mikayla. “You have to be able to talk about L&D in a way that leaders care about.”
Rally L&D advocates in the organization
You should also build relationships with executives or tenured members of the organization to help advocate for Learning and Development (L&D) initiatives. Generally, it’s a good idea to seek advice from anyone in the organization who seems to be a champion of L&D. There are usually people in the organization who speak the language of L&D and understand the work that has to be done,” says Mikayla.
Rely on the organizational knowledge of these individuals to get a sense of what types of initiatives will have an impact on team members. “Lean on relationships and trust that already exists,” says Mikayla. These allies can help you outline exactly how your L&D program will lead to organizational success. “For some leaders, L&D might be confusing or seem like a ‘nice to have,’ so creating a really clear plan of attack, a structured program outline, and being able to explain how a given program will positively impact the organization shows that you’ve got this. You’re not just adding more work to their plate, you’re there as a partner and an expert in people development ,” says Mikayla.
Always try to get a different perspective from someone who is in the company and understands and works toward the company’s goals, but tackles those goals in a way that completely outside of L&D—you’d be surprised by how much you can draw from their insights.
Facilitate interactive Learning and Development (L&D) programs
Based on her experience as a Learning and Development (L&D) consultant, Mikayla believes all organizational development initiatives should include fun, experiential learning activities. “So much growth happens when you’re having fun—I’ve seen this frequently in team development sessions,” says Mikayla. “A well designed activity can teach leadership, communication, and healthy conflict just by putting a group of people into a new, low stakes, and somewhat competitive situation together.”
These days, she optimizes engagement for real-time, interactive sessions, by setting learners up with pre-work beforehand in a Learning Management System like WorkRamp. Giving participants access to fundamental, baseline knowledge through pre-assigned work means that they can spend more time actively engaged and learning through experience during live sessions.
It’s not enough to just come in, build a training, and hope that it is going to have your desired results. It’s about creating an ecosystem where learning can take place so that you can get the business outcomes that we care about.
Create a safe space to be vulnerable
Many of the live training programs that Mikayla and her team facilitate require some level of vulnerability and openness among participants. Creating psychological safety is a crucial step in getting people to break down walls, open up and make true progress. To create a safe space for participants, facilitators set clear expectations, model vulnerability themselves, and ask the team leader to lead by example. When leading an activity, Mikayla will often start by sharing her own personal experiences and feelings with attendees.
Part of creating psychological safety for program participants is establishing trust in the facilitators. Though facilitators are present to guide discussions and coach team development, they should be careful to never come at it from a place of preaching or reprimanding. “It’s not our place to come in and say ‘we are the professionals, and we’re here to fix you,’” warns Mikayla.
We expect and trust the teams to do the work and we make it really clear that this is their journey. We’re just there to kind of create a container and facilitate it. I think that actually helps the teams open up because it’s not like we’re coming in from the top down, but we’re creating a sort of bubble where people feel safe.
Keep your development activities lively and engaging
At The People Piece, programs are custom-built for teams, meaning that activities are built with the participants and organization in mind. Regardless of whether you’re bringing in an external partner to facilitate programs or working with your internal Learning and Development (L&D) leaders, it’s important to consider how to best deliver program content.
As a general rule of thumb, facilitators should never lecture; for The People Piece, that means facilitators will not speak for more than 10 minutes without initiating some sort of engagement or audience conversation. “There’s no reason to push people beyond what they are paying attention to,” says Mikayla. “Making sure that we’re not lecturing or making long-winded speeches helps keep energy levels up in the room.”
Most of the solutions The People Piece offer are based in interactive group exercise. As Mikayla has found, the best way to guide teams through tension, animosity, or disconnect is through honest conversations where people feel heard. “We design different programs that are unique to the different types of team development work that needs to be done, but there is no reason to reinvent the wheel every time you work with a team,” says Mikayla. “Draw on activities that you know have worked in the past, and develop a playbook of programs you can revisit.”
Be honest and transparent with your audience
Mikayla offers clear advice for working with teams that are apprehensive about team development activities: “be real with people, don’t try to pretend that everyone is excited or on the same page.” In the same way that getting through to leaders may require brutal honesty, facilitators sometimes need to begin programming by setting a clear and realistic vision of what opportunities are present in the organization and outline how the forthcoming exercises will help teams become more cohesive and aligned.
One of the benefits of working with experienced facilitators is that they are often incredibly perceptive. Such experts are truly able to read the room and adjust programming on the fly. Based on their observations, they may choose to change up activities, cut programming short, introduce an improv activity, or intervene when conversations become too tense.
Try these activities*:
Stay open to shifts in L&D trends and company culture
As remote and hybrid work become the norm, Mikayla expects new trends to emerge in Learning and Development (L&D). She’s optimistic about the rise of play in team development activities, as she truly believes in the power of experiential learning. “So much happens when you’re having fun,” says Mikayla.
“Incorporating ways to learn through our bodies, through making a fool of ourselves, and failure is actually really beneficial.” Mikayla expects to see more Learning and Development (L&D) orgs adopt improv techniques as well the types of silly games that you might expect to see in an elementary classroom as the year progresses. “The more we can shake ourselves out of routine, the more open our brains are to learning,” she says.
“When you really think about it, work is really an odd way for a group of people to come together. The only thing they have in common is that they’ve chosen the same company and maybe the same field,” says Mikayla. “L&D is all about finding out how we can connect and bond this amalgamation of people from different backgrounds with different motivations.”
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