When Performance is Systemic, Black Box Training Won’t Work


Once upon a time, I was giving a writing skills training to young associates in a law firm. I was teaching them how to write clear, simple, short and actionable legal advice. At the end of the training, I asked them two questions: Did you find the training interesting? And are you going to apply what you have learned? Although the answer to the first question was an overwhelming “yes”, the answer to the second one was “no way”. I asked them why and they told me: “The partners won’t let us. They are the ones who want us to use the traditional, academic, style.”

This episode taught me interesting lessons.

First, what we often consider as individual performance (e.g. writing) is actually a systemic performance. Even if you have the skills to perform, you will hardly be able to use these skills if the “system” in which you operate does not empower you to do so. Yet most training programs focus on teaching skills to individuals and fail to address systemic issues (training managers don’t have the authority to do this). As a result, nothing changes. Teaching skills to associates or employees won’t produce any tangible change if the system (in this case, the partners) is not supportive, and this explain why so many training in time management, business development, project management, communications, etc. are not improving performance at all.

Second, providing training while ignoring the systemic dimension (what I call “black box training”) is not only useless, it is also an obvious waste of money and it undermines the credibility of senior management. In the example of the writing skills training, as the course was unfolding, the associates were realising that the traditional way of delivering legal advice that was sponsored by the partners was sub-optimal. They also realised that they would have to stick to these sub-optimal standards themselves because of the unwillingness of the partners to change. And the hardest blow is yet to come: Although nobody said so openly, they realised that the partners in their firms were unreliable role models.

So, when I am asked to run a training program in an organisation, I try every time to figure out the systemic dimensions of the issue and whether the system is supporting or at least allowing the acquisition and the expression of new skills. When there is a lack of alignment, I propose to address that gap first before launching the training program. Systemic coaching of the organisation as a whole is far more effective in inducing performance improvement than an effort limited to training.

© Antoine Henry de Frahan, 2019