Write a strong goal: Sell it to Scrooge

Can Bob the training guy get $40,000 to develop his course? Find out how a strong goal can justify your project and focus your design. Learn more.

Write a strong goal: Sell it to Scrooge

By Cathy Moore

A pile of Euro coinsWhen a client says, “My team needs training,” they might not realize it yet, but they have a bigger goal in mind. That goal is the real reason the project has to happen.

Unfortunately, it’s common to develop training with the wrong type of goal. Below are some typical goals. They all have a big blind spot. What are they missing?

  • Salespeople will know all the product features.
  • Managers will handle difficult conversations better.
  • Everyone will use the new software.
  • People will be aware of the dangers of the internet.
  • Leaders will help people adjust to big changes.

If you had $40,000 and someone asked you to spend that money on any of the above goals, what would you say?

Here’s what I’d say: “What will I get in return?”

A business goal is the “What’s in it for me?” for the organization. It justifies the existence of the project in business terms. None of the goals above clearly shows what’s in it for the organization.

Let’s see how it works with the first goal, “Salespeople will know all the product features.”

Sell it to Scrooge

Imagine that I’m a C-level type in a widget company and I’m sitting behind a tidy pile of $40,000.

A training person, let’s call him Bob, comes to me and says, “Give me that $40k, and in return, salespeople will know all the product features.”

“What, can’t they read the product brochure?” I say, wrapping my arms around the money.

“Well, yes, but they’re not selling our widgets as well as they could,” Bob says. “Our mystery shoppers say that the salespeople just sell the micro widget. They ignore the mega and mongo widgets even when they’re the best widgets for the customer. We have a reputation as cheap widget-pushers.”

“So tell them to sell more mega and mongo widgets,” I say.

“But we don’t want them to sell the mega or mongo if it’s the wrong widget for the customer,” Bob says. “That goes against our mission and will hurt our brand.”

“You want this money,” I say, “so you can help salespeople identify the best widget for the customer?”

“Yes, that’s it,” Bob says. “I guess just knowing the features isn’t enough. They have to develop the skills to identify the customer’s needs and then match the features to those needs.”

“And then what will happen?” I say. “How will I get my $40k back?”

“Sales of mega and mongo widgets will go up,” Bob says. “Since we make more profit from those than from the micro widgets, we’ll make more money.”

“And…?” I say in my most annoying tone, still gripping the money.

“And our reputation will improve, helping our brand,” Bob says. “Overall sales could go up and we could gain market share, because we’ll become the widget company that really listens. Everyone else just pushes widgets.”

“All right,” I say, reluctantly peeling $20k off the pile. “Here’s some money. Let’s see if you can show a 5% increase in mega and mongo widget sales by fourth quarter. If so, we’ll use the rest of the money to expand what you’re doing and see if we can gain market share.”

What changed during the conversation?

Bob’s goal started as this:

  • Salespeople will know all the product features

It ended as this:

  • Mega and mongo widget sales will increase 5% by Q4 as salespeople identify the best widget for each customer

Bob now has a way to measure the success of his project, at least in the short term, and it’s a measure that benefits the business as a whole. His new goal justifies the expense of the project.

Bob’s new goal also shows everyone involved in the project that he’s serious and is going to measure results. It shows that “training people” like Bob play vital roles in the success of the organization.

Imagine the training that results

A good business goal helps you sell your project to Scrooges like me, but it also has a profound effect on the type of training you develop.

Bob’s original goal was “Salespeople will know all the product features.” What would have happened if I were out of the office and someone gave Bob all the money without challenging his goal? What kind of training would he create?

Bob’s revised goal aims to increase sales of specific products by having salespeople identify the best widget for each customer. How did the new goal change Bob’s approach to his design?

See what happens next

I’ve continued the story on a separate page to keep this post short.

If this seems like something out of a book, that’s because it is. I’m writing a book on action mapping, and it should be available in the next couple of months. I’ll be sure to announce it in the blog.

Photo: aditza121 via Compfight cc

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20 comments on “Write a strong goal: Sell it to Scrooge

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  1. I love this. I’ve read before on changing up your goal to be more effective (using the same situation, no less, about salespeople), but only in the context of creating more effective learning – not in the context of selling it to someone. Now if only all the people out there who hand out budgets for elearning would be as stingy as Scrooge ;).

  2. Great perspective, Cathy! Managers will handle difficult conversations better. I particularly liked the analogy of a C-level client requesting specific training to a patient telling the doctor that he needs a prescription for antibiotics without even talking to the doctor about the symptoms he’s experiencing. I can relate!

    Measurement can be a challenge – easier with sales since the numbers are so tangible. I’d love to hear recommendations for how to measure say, “Managers will handle difficult conversations better.”

    1. For “managers will handle difficult conversations better,” I’d put on my Scrooge hat and say, “What are you currently measuring that shows that managers are mucking up difficult conversations?”

      The answer might be a measure from staff evaluations, like the score for “I feel like my manager respects me” is low, which wouldn’t thrill my Scrooge-y heart but at least is a measure that we could aim at.

      I’d actually like something closer to the money, like this: Staff turnover in our company is higher than average for our industry, and data from exit interviews suggest that heavy-handed management of difficult issues (which we would want to define better) is part of it. Since it costs a lot to replace people who quit, I’d be interested in increasing staff retention / reducing turnover.

      So assuming we have data suggesting that retention has room to improve, and ham-fisted managers are one reason our retention is lower than expected, then we might try for a goal like “Employee turnover will decrease X% [to the industry average, maybe] as all managers apply the ‘We Really Care’ difficult conversation model.”

      I like to use models because a well-designed model has clear, behavioral guidelines, and we can use it as a sort of evaluation later: “Did Sarah start the conversation with step 1 of the model? Did she address the issues in the model’s Really Big Issues list?” and so forth.

      If the economy is such that people can’t quit even if they want to, then rather than employee retention, we might look for another measure, such as unusual amounts of time off, departments under certain managers having significantly lower results than others, or other suggestions of productivity issues and disengaged workers, and then look more closely at those measures. The main point is to find something that’s already being measured and that could realistically be affected by an improvement in that specific managerial skill.

      What other measures would people suggest? Any ideas? Managerial issues can be hard to nail down.

  3. Great posts Cathy! Great story! You raise an important point about what we do as designers. Basically ask Why? over and over again until you feel you know what’s really happening, and then be able to really have an impact. Of course you will likely be told (too often): just do it. But asking why will at least make you feel better. 🙂
    This is about being a performance improvement professional: incorporate business analysis with instructional design.

  4. Impactful article! I particularly like your Dr./Rx analogy.
    I work in a regulated industry and much of our training is introductory; new employees who need to be indoctrinated into our business, our company and our processes. Since it’s not perfomance improvement per se and we are starting with a given knowledge and skill gap, can there be a measurable business goal? Obviously the cost of not training would be huge, but since we aren’t starting with a situation where we incurred that cost and could thus reduce it—I don’t know how to use that as a business goal.
    What would you say to that, if you had your Scrooge hat on?

    1. April, thanks for your question. I agree it can be hard to measure the avoidance of a cost, so maybe training for new hires is more about maintaining current levels of values.

      It might help to break the training down into its types and look at the costs that the training is trying to avoid. For example, if the new hires have to learn how to use the company’s internal database, a Scrooge-ish measure that could be affected by the training is the number of calls to the help desk. If you don’t train the new people well, they’ll call for help a lot and the company might need to hire more help desk workers. So in a sense you’re seeing a lack of change as a sign of success: If you hire new people and calls to the help desk don’t increase, you’ve done a good job.

      If the help desk staffers track who’s asking for help, you have a more specific goal to play with, maybe trying to reduce the number of calls made by people who were hired that quarter.

      A more distant measure to consider is employee retention. If people are quitting soon after being hired, that might be related to poor onboarding and could be an existing measure that could be improved.

      Or, if you have data that lets you say “X% of our company was hired within the last year,” you could look for correlations between X and the amount of fines or legal fees the company pays, or look for more individual correlations between employees who violated regulations and how long they’ve been working for the firm. If you can express that as a number, such as “20% of our fines from 2010-14 can be connected to decisions made by people who had one year or less with our firm” then you could aim to reduce that 20% for the coming year. Or something like that.

      1. This hits on a very important, and often overlooked, area: measurement. I work in Government, where “cost avoidance” is about the only measure trumpeted (hmmm…while everyone is incentivized to increase budget because what bigger fancier feathers are to peacocks, larger budgets and bigger staffs are to Government managers), it is measures ABHORRENTLY. One book I found and love is Douglas Hubbard’s “How to Measure Anything.” I’m not saying good measures will change anything – because they won’t until/unless the reward/punishment/incentive structure aligns with the proposed change – but good measures will certainly shine a nice “60 Minutes” spotlight on stupidity/bureaucracy.

  5. I got excited when I saw the goal, “Leaders will help people adjust to big changes.” I’m in the process of updating a classroom workshop on dealing with change and designing an online module. How would this process work in a situation like this, where people are complaining and resisting change?

    1. Beverly, thanks for your question. It sounds like you have one measure already, if evaluations or a survey shows that people are unhappy with a change that’s currently underway. It’s not a Scrooge-level measurement, but it’s a start.

      It gets a lot harder to identify a measure if your training isn’t focused on any change in particular and people are just generally resistant to change of any kind. In that situation, one approach could be to identify the behaviors that are associated with supporting change, which these researchers seem to have done:
      Then you could say that your goal is to increase those behaviors in the organization, though you’d also need to set up a way to measure them, such as including them in the current evaluation system.

      To find an existing measure you could use, you might look online for “how to measure change management” or “change management ROI.” I like the overall approach described in this post:

      You’ll find several measures that might or might not be applicable to your situation in this report:

      Good luck!

      1. Thanks for your thoughts and the additional resources. Increasing the behaviors we want (being “change-ready” instead of “change resistant) is the direction I was heading, but wondered if that was the best path to take. You’ve been a big help, as always!

  6. Astonishingly clear argument, Cathy! If there is one thing that gets in my way as a trainer, it is shallow preconceptions.Personally, I’ve banished the words “know” and “understand” from my goal vocabulary. We can’t measure those, and they don’t affect outcomes anyway.

    I am currently developing training for student employees at my university. Interesting story: while we were able to pull out metrics to fashion goals out of–“reduce time on call” or “increase acceptance rate of work orders in flow by other teams”–I discovered that THE big motivator was to find authentic ways to tie student employment itself to the university’s mission.

    We oriented away from the “students are cheap labor” attitude and its goal of saving money; we embraced “Universities prepare students to capably enter the workforce” instead. There is a whole 2020 Vision that characterizes what we think student success looks like for the campus. We incorporated it into training for a pretty menial position. Lo and behold! That shifted the entire structure of our training into something the student employees positively embraced.

    Now we have training for students that hits big ideas like teamwork, professional competence, accountability, interpersonal communication… oh, and the job skill competencies too.

    Best part: students have an equal hand in developing the trainings. Finding the right goals made it AWESOME and opened up opportunities for every stakeholder. (And it is lots of fun to develop, too!)

    Blogged about it, see the prototype training program here:

    As always, Cathy: thank you so much for your clarity and passion.

    1. Cameron, thanks for sharing your prototype. Hey, everyone, go check it out! As Cameron says, “This is a gold mine.” It’s a simple, binder-based approach to keeping track of what I as a worker can do and what I need to work on, and it helps my peer-mentors and leaders see at a glance what I can do and what I’m ready to teach others.

      Thanks also for the reminder that it can be very powerful to align a goal to the mission of the organization. Making the Scrooges happy is only one role for a goal; another is to inspire everyone who’s on the project, and tying it to a mission everyone believes in is a great way to do that.

      One question: In the corner of the video, quietly resting against a chair, just sticking its neck up, IS THAT A BANJO???? (This is/was me:

      1. Inspiration is the key for connecting goals to commitment, I find. I keep running into people who lean on the logic of argument when they try to design training. I think it needs to be a logical process, but the emotion of inspiration is what really crystallizes the buy-in at the beginning.

        Re, Banjo: Oh my goodness, YES.

        Cathy, I am so delighted by the many layers of your personal onion. Discovering your banjo lessons is a real gift right now. I cut my teeth on Patrick Costello’s Daily Frail, and I’m seeing a lot of what I liked there in your own videos. Thanks for making more great learning available on this super-fun instrument.

        Here is/was me doing a Battlestar Galactica tribute a few years back: Not great, but learning.

        I did a few training vids:
        Frailing tips for banjo and uke:
        Holding your banjo:

        So grateful that you shared! Keep on pluckin’!

  7. I guess that Simon Sinek’s book “Start with why” might be kind of helpful for everyone. Not only leaders and marketers, but also managers and as you fantastically pointed – instructional designers.
    Great post Cathy!

  8. This article is quite interesting as it highlights one of the frequent problems with training – the transfer of knowledge instead of change in behavior that leads to improvement in productivity. I have attended several workshops that provided a vast amount of information designed to challenge existing situation but the desired change in behavior and other benefits were not attained. Quite often the steps and activities that are expected to achieve goals are envisioned and outlined however the level of consideration given to the conditions essential for sustaining the routines needed for change are inadequate. Also in some cases there is a need to alter the initial procedure as conditions change. For example, the introduction of technology can pose several challenges that hinder the goals that are envisioned to promote change in behavior and achievement of a vision. Setting up criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of activities and procedure provides the opportunity to note changing behavior that leads to the attainment of the goals and the vision that informed the training process. The criterion may also help to identify the factors or degree of hindrances that are challenging the activities that prevent attaining the goal. Giving consideration to the human resource that need to change their perspective and behavior to achieve the goal is quite important as they may lend valuable insight that may inform the change process.

  9. Great article Cathy! I am completing a Master’s Degree in Human Resource Development and I wanted to let you know I have bookmarked your blog as a great resource :). Reading the comments of professionals in the training industry, sharing their practical knowledge, is truly valuable. Thanks!

  10. You are so right Cathy! It’s all about the “WHY”. Why do people buy training? Why do learners attend and engage in training? Why do we slow down when we see a police car? Why does anyone do anything? The answer is of course, what’s in it for them. Examples can include more money, vacation, clients, credibility, friends, partners, etc… In reality, we all consider what we will get from our actions. Learners attend and engage in training so they can improve their situation with more money, a raise, time off, etc… We slow down around the police so we can avoid a speeding ticket. Everyone wants to maximize the return on their efforts. It’s ironic that people get nervous when talking with management (especially in the C-suite) until they realize the value they bring to the table. People are people. We all want to maximize the return on our investments in money, time, relationships, etc. Consider the why of your audience and things will go much more smoothly. That’s how you can more effectively sell your ideas…and any other thing you want, too!