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Why Your Training and Development Fails

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I know your week has been busy, so I will cut right to it: I know why your training and development fails. I have a front-row seat to dozens of teams every year and I hear a lot of the same things. Do any of these sound familiar to you? 

We did a session about that and people loved it, but it didn’t stick. 

We had a workshop on that two years ago, so we already know that.  

We got really into that for a while, but we moved on to a new topic. Everyone wants to do it again, but we’ve already got our sessions lined up for the year.  

If twenty years of teaching, a master educator license, and a doctorate in education have taught me anything, it’s this: Understanding must be earned by the learner.  

I’ve seen a lot of training focus on transmitting knowledge from one person to another. It always reminds me of the scene in The Matrix where Neo needs to learn to fly a helicopter and they just send the information directly through that cord into his brain. In education, we often use the term “sit and get” because, you guessed it, the learners just sit and get the information presented to them. This can work for basic, procedural knowledge—think updates to an existing policy as one example—but it doesn’t work for the complex behavior change that so many of our clients are seeking. If you want to build a high trusting team, improve communication, or create a more inclusive workplace, the ‘sit and get’ structure just won’t do the job. Let’s dig into a few of the common traps we see teams fall into with their training and development.

Rethinking common training and development traps 

Trap: We mistake having knowledge with being able to apply the knowledge.  

Tip: One of the biggest ways we see this concept at work is when people tell us they “know this” or they’ve “learned this before.” Knowing and doing are two completely different things. Doing once and doing repeatedly with a high level of skill are also two different things. If you want to design a learning experience that will promote lasting behavior change, you need to focus on what you want learners to know and what they will be able to do; then plan ongoing tune-ups, check-ins, and coaching to support the desired change.  

Trap: Training and development sessions leapfrog across different topics.  

Tip: There is nothing innately wrong with having sessions on different topics over the year. In fact, this can be a good way to get a sense of what your group wants to learn more about or to see how a facilitator or coach gels with your group before you invest resources in a long-term plan. While exposure to different topics or facilitators is good, it’s not the way deep development occurs. The best development—the kind that feels rewarding for learners, positively impacts work each day, and maximizes your training investment—can’t be achieved without deep, focused learning that occurs over time.  

Trap: Facilitators default to the way their high school or college courses were taught. We call this “the sage on the stage”—someone who knows something simply telling others who don’t.  

Tip: Too often, we focus on the teaching instead of on the learning. If you want to teach something complicated that results in a lasting change for your team, you need to stop thinking about covering the material and start thinking about uncovering it. When the learning is organized so that content is uncovered, the learner has to engage, analyze, reflect, and get messy with ideas. Learners need to experiment, question and evolve their thinking. We will never gain a deep understanding of anything if we are passive in the process.  

Questions to get your reflection or discussion jump-started:

  • In what ways does this resonate with your experience as a learner? 
  • What leads us to default into the traps outlined above? 
  • How do we balance exposure to different topics with deep learning? 
  • How do these concepts change our understanding of what training should look like and what both facilitators and learners should do? 


We LOVE hearing from you! What questions, feedback, or insights do you have about this topic? Email me at Teresa@SarahNollWilson.com 

Comments (3)

The “Sage on the stage” resonated with me. So often, we conduct obligatory training in safety-related (OSHA compliance) and HR policy and now I clearly see that the goal is to “cover” material. If I did a better job of “uncovering” material, it would be much easier on me to conduct refresher training to reinforce uncovered learnings!

Great post Sarah. I read a quote once, “The great end of learning is not knowing, but action.”

In my years owning and running a training and development firm, we adhered to an adult learning model called PAF – Presentation, Application, Feedback. Learners need to APPLY the teaching just presented, and receive feedback, within each module.

Ever tried to learn golf? You can consume hour upon hour of Presentation – lectures, videos, demonstrations. But it’s only when you go to APPLY that you find how little you have learned.

Be well Sarah, keep up the phenomenal work!

Great points all! Great design matters a LOT. Sure the content matters, but designing how people will learn it and use it matters more.

2/3 of learning time ought to be in authentic practice, application, and feedback. Frequent learner trial and revision cycles. Our goal is for learners to feel confident AND competent.

If you are “covering” your content, your learners most assuredly are not.

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