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Annual Planning: The L&D Frenemy

I am not known for my stellar decision-making capabilities, particularly when reacting impulsively, or after the words, “Here, hold my vodka”. One fateful summer night, the City of Toronto was laying fresh cement sidewalk. As luck would have it, someone (thankfully not me) did not notice all the caution signs and tripped right into the wet concrete, leaving behind two massive footprints, plus one elbow-print. The city workers were not impressed, but hey, it was an accident and they said a crew would repair it the next day.

Something I had always wanted to do is write my name in cement. Since the sidewalk was already ruined, why the heck not? I grabbed a stick and gleefully went to write my name. It does not take long to write Lori. When I finished, I expected to see my friends giving me the thumbs up. Instead, their jaws were wide open in shock.

I did not write Lori in the ruined sidewalk slab. I left my name in the pristine slab beside it. Um, oops.

So, whilst this is an example of a spectacular lack of planning and the consequences, there are equally damaging outcomes when one decides to plan obsessively. For example, the annual plan used by L&D departments.

Look, I get it. It is incredibly neat and tidy to begin the fiscal year with a list of courses to develop and get a dopamine hit when you tick each one off the list. It makes stakeholders and CEOs happy, and everyone gets a bonus in December. As a “bonus”, you end up with a curriculum on one of the following topics: Project Management, Leadership, or Presentation Skills. Enjoy taking care of that pet rock.

If you ask an L&D leader for their biggest challenges, a common complaint is no seat at the table with the business. As a consultant, I see all sides of the table and this is not an oversight.

It is a fact universally acknowledged when someone starts a group chat, someone else immediately creates a sub group chat, minus the people they think are annoying. Sorry L&D people. We are not invited.

Consider the following common experience: there has been a crisis and employees need to quickly know about a new operating procedure or there could be potential injuries and impacts to reputation. Learning is contacted but because the annual plan and budget has been set, there are no resources available. So, either a vendor is brought in at a very high cost, the content waits in the queue, or the business goes ahead and develops their own solution. BTW, nothing triggers an L&D professional more than a non-learning professional building content #ForReal. You will hear them passive aggressively pound at the “click next” button several cubicles away.

The business expects L&D to be agile, but there are agreed upon deliverables promised to stakeholders. Still, the annual plan is your frenemy. Yes, it makes you feel secure, but it is preventing you from moving forward.

I have written about triaging learning requests before (see here). Basically, it means prioritizing projects daily based on what will deliver maximum ROI to the business. Here are some more details on how it works:

Compliance content is considered steady state. You plug into your calendar the resources and budget allocation and consider it an unavoidable annual deliverable. My personal suggestion is to invest the absolute minimum into compliance training. There is so little room to be innovative, it is a CYA exercise, and has endless content reviews. Thank U, Next.

Next, plan for your big rocks, but not only on an annual basis. These are the large business initiatives which will require learning interventions. Pre-allocate 40% of your resources to these initiatives. You might be thinking, but all my resources are already dedicated to these projects! Yes, because the front-loading has been allowed via the frenemy annual plan. Use data and performance consult to only commit to projects with tangible ROI.

Thirdly, and this is where it gets jazzy, amend your intake process to capture the following:

  • Does this request have a risk (reputational, monetary, etc.)?
  • Is this request revenue generating?
  • Does this request align with the identified business priorities?
  • How many people does this impact?
  • What if nothing is done?

Now you have critical information to rank projects against each other and determine which have higher priority. Work should then be reprioritized daily (yes, daily), based on what will have the most positive impact on the business. So, if we think back to the crisis above, that request would be a heart attack and move to the front of the queue. Other projects with less critical impacts would be deferred.

I will not lie. Many stakeholders disliked this model because they wanted their work to be first. But these are people complaining in an emergency room about their stubbed toe when a spinal injury gets wheeled in. This reprioritization model means L&D is a better strategic partner, not wasting resources, and delivering better value.

Pro-tip: I recommend Workfront as the best tool to manage this type of model. I do not work for them, but it is the only software I have found to give the agility, reporting, and ability to reprioritize quickly.

Reconstruction meant I assumed my inadvertent vandalism would be destroyed. I was pleased to see not only has the sidewalk not been replaced, the new building is a liquor store. Yes, any North Torontonian buying wine will see a worse for wear LORI. Thankfully I did not add my surname.