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How to learn to ski


A part of HR’s role is telling people how to do things. For example we tell people how to do performance management: we create processes; we have forms, we have software; we have training programs.

And yet, people still don’t do it right! So you try to break it down in more detail. Maybe they have only been focusing on concrete goals, so you add in competencies. Maybe the objectives are not aligned with corporate needs, so you create a cascade process. Maybe…well there are a lot of things that can be done badly and each set of errors encourages us to provide more detailed guidance and controls.

The trouble with providing more and more help is that you end up with a complex, unwieldy process that still doesn’t work. When that becomes too burdensome, you radically simplify the whole thing until people make mistakes, and you start adding in more and more structure again.

This unhappy dynamic of simple to complex and back again is driven by a fact that processes, forms, instructions and even training is insufficient for someone to master a technique. Think of learning to ski: you cannot set up a fool-proof process so that they never fall down. You cannot even really teach them to ski, all you can do is help them learn.

A change in mindset

Deciding to help people learn, rather than building more controls into a process, is a shift in mindset for some HR departments—maybe even more than a shift in mindset, it is a leap of faith.

One of my favourite insights into how people learn comes from Tim Gallwey’s book The Inner Game of Tennis. He noticed that giving people detailed instructions (“keep your weight on your right knee as you wind up to hit the serve”) was less helpful that telling people where to pay attention (“pay attention to your balance as you serve”). So rather than telling people what to do, we should tell them what to watch for.

A similar idea is to arm people with good questions instead of whole scripts. Pointing out what to ask can be all the help a manager needs to get something moving in the right direction.

To develop any skill, people of course need a chance to practice and after practice they need a chance to reflect on how it went. The easiest way to get that reflection is to get groups of people together for a conversation. The elements required to help people learn are quite straightforward; all that is needed is a commitment to that approach.

A learning culture

Moving from a world of trying to control what people do, to a world where people develop the skills to do it right on their own, works best with a learning culture. Most CEOs will agree that a learning culture is a good idea, but probably won’t know how to create it, and may even work against it by punishing people who try something new and fail.

For those CEOs I recommend Chris Worley et al’s book The Agility Factor. His research illustrates how important a “test and implement” approach is to sustained corporate performance. In other words, try something and if it fails take that as a data point to guide your next test).

Let me leave you with this: pay attention to what is and what isn’t working. This is not a one-time exercise; it is a constant discipline. As you pay attention, you will learn where you need to shift your weight. But pay attention, instead of looking for a pre-packaged answer that tells you what to do.


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