Often in business, and my closest experience is in L&D, we demonstrate time and again how afraid we are of admitting mistakes, failures, and anything less than stellar results. You know what I’m talking about. Ask yourself this: when was the last time you launched a training solution and went back to your stakeholders with negative results? Or, when was the last time you went to a training development conference — big or small — and one of the presenters talked about all the mistakes she made as she developed a leadership development initiative? NEVER.


This is a huge mistake. We’re missing out on valuable lessons we could learn and improve upon. It reminds me of the story of Gregory Potemkin.

Gregory Potemkin was a governor in Russia during the rule of Catherine the Great in the late 18th century. Catherine, escorting visiting dignitaries on a tour of her country, sailed down the Dnieper river past the thriving villages within Potemkin’s territory. The visitors were impressed with how industrious, busy, and happy the villagers appeared. However, there was one problem: it was all fake. Potemkin had built pasteboard facades and positioned busy-looking villagers strategically so that it only appeared prosperous to those floating by on the river. Once the boats went around a bend in the river, the villagers packed up the fake store-fronts and ran to the next spot where the river came close again, and set up the illusory village again.

How does this apply to us?

It applies in a number of ways, a few of which I’ve listed below.

Training solutions — the big analysis and design.

Often we find ourselves spending a great deal of time analyzing a performance gap and designing the optimal solution. We spend so much time on the analysis and design that we have barely any time for the development and evaluation after implementation. So we grab some quick L1 survey results and go back to our stakeholders touting sevens, eights, or even nines and claim success. But we don’t stop to measure beyond for behavior change or business impact. And we’re missing out on learning from application and our own experience what kind of training actually works.

Technology Implementations — that don’t improve things

I worked in a large L&D department once — large enough that we had our own separate technology team. The technology team was so convinced that by implementing a content management solution (CMS) we could save the company millions of dollars a year in labor that they convinced our executive to fund the purchase an expensive, high-end solution. This team went on to speak at many conferences, most even before the technology was implemented, about CMS and content reusability best practices. stranded-918933But once all the hype subsided and the solution was installed and implemented, it was quickly obvious that our investment wasn’t giving us near the promised return. Implementing the structures and models they hatched without testing or prototyping turned out to so complicated that all but one of our business partners even agreed to participate. To this date, they’re still saddled with an expensive system that’s hardly being used but no one has the courage to speak up and honestly explain the failed experiment.

One Trick Vendors

More and more I see vendors leaning on one instructional methodology that is how they design all their training solutions. Virtual instruction, eLearning, and the ephemeral blended learning. Take your pick. However, rarely does a truly effective learning solution require only one instructional methodology. And so we get stuck in doing everything one way, because we’ve paid a vendor to build the solution in the way they do things best.

The Implications

What this really means is that training is still a check-box activity for business unit leaders and change managers. They all know that training should be done, so they put as little effort into it as possible and check it off when it’s completed. Business managers know when training sticks, or more often doesn’t stick. And so they lose trust in us.

Stephen M.R. Covey wrote in The Speed of Trust of a trust dividend, that the answer to this question, “Do you trust your boss?” is more predictive of team and organizational performance than any other question they might ask. I would say that the question, “Do you trust your training department?” is predictive of the effort and value our operational partners place in us.

It’s time for us to start admitting our mistakes and failures so we can learn from them and modify our training approaches so we can truly find those optimal approaches. Now is truly the time — everyone is talking about innovation and the importance of failure. We should, as an industry, take advantage of this zeitgeist and operationalize the idea of quick iterations that imply failure that will lead us to truly effective training solutions.