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Space to learn

james woodcock | rail professional | 9 june 2017

This article was first published by Rail Professional.

How do you make sure your leaders have what it takes to deliver the immediate priorities of a high-stakes, high profile programme yet at the same time, keep one eye on building the skills they will need for the future?

If you are High Speed 2, you take an innovative approach, blending digital resources to support the immediate performance needs; challenging face-to-face simulations to set the standard for the future and simple habit-building tools (a leadership “fitbit”) to embed the learning over time. 

Building learning agility at HS2 Ltd

With Royal Assent for phase 1 granted in February this year and the programme shifting from a design footing into delivery, the role and capability of leadership was recognised as fundamental to the future success of the programme. HS2’s Head of Organisational Leadership and Development, Linda Litherland, was set the challenge of equipping leaders to deliver what is the UK’s largest rail infrastructure programme. 

Enabling leaders to perform at their peak, in a fast-paced and evolving organisation, required a more agile approach to learning that responded both to the changing demands of the programme and on its leaders. In 2016, HS2 appointed PA Consulting Group as its Learning Delivery Partner. PA’s role was to develop an overall approach to learning that would support the day to day performance of its senior leaders and line managers and set expectations about the future role of leaders. 

Giving leaders the right tools to perform

Today's workplace is characterised by rapid changes in roles, and the people undertaking them, which has exposed shortcomings in conventional learning. We know that as much as 95% of learning isn’t done during classroom training, whilst only 25% of training impacts performance at all . The approach taken by the joint PA and HS2 team has been to focus on improving performance and engagement, rather than memorisation of information. Through conversations with leaders early on in the project it was evident that a blended learning approach was needed to address the particular challenges. The result is a development programme that addresses performance on three levels, which we refer to simply as ‘heads, hearts and habits’.

Using your head - online performance toolkit 

Knowledge is still one of the principal barriers to performance. Either leaders cannot find the answer they’re looking for, or the information is so unwieldy that it takes significant time and effort to translate that knowledge into effective action.

As a result, we developed ‘learning space’ - an online learning portal that leaders can access through their laptop or mobile, with learning resources (such as simple checklists, videos and how to guides) that leaders can draw on right when they need them. The result more closely resembles the digital experiences that people choose in their personal lives, rather than the educational experiences they strive to avoid – made possible by placing leaders at the heart of the user experience design. We are providing leaders with content that is quick to consume, accessible, compelling, and most importantly personal to their needs. 

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From the heart – learning through real life scenarios 

The second area the team addressed was around motivation and engagement – put simply how the way we feel impacts our performance. We know that so much of what engenders great performance is driven by our personal motivations and intrinsic preferences to events. The team have developed a programme of ‘experiential’ sessions that place small groups of leaders in hyper-realistic, simulations and practical exercises, designed to raise what we call ‘personal performance awareness’. The emphasis is on exploring how an individual thinks, feels and acts in real-time when faced with some of HS2’s critical leadership challenges, with time to reflect on the impact of the decisions they make. Sessions developed so far include leading through change, leading wellness, recruitment and inclusivity.

Building new habits - in 20 days

The team are also well underway to delivering a two day face to face development programme to HS2’s top 300 leaders. Built into the programme is PA’s ‘20-days-later’ habit building methodology. Habits are micro-behaviours, driven by the sub-conscious and which can have a significant cumulative effect on our lives. We tasked delegates with completing 20 daily challenges designed to integrate and extend their learning back into their day jobs. Our approach leverages the psychology of habits by focussing on specific habitual activities rather than vague behaviours, to nudge those micro-behaviours that drive performance. Tasks range from initiating a coaching conversation with a team member to seeking feedback.

Optimising the learning ecosystem to deliver real impact

This innovative, blended approach is beginning to have a real impact. The learning portal has had over 1000 visits since its launch in April. HS2 has witnessed first-hand how its leaders have immediate access to tools that help them perform every day. There has also been a shift in how their leaders view their longer term role in shaping HS2.

James Woodcock is a people and talent expert at PA Consulting Group 

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