How We’ve Modified Business Storytelling Workshops for Remote Learning

There’s a silver lining to every crisis. For me, as the facilitator of business storytelling workshops, I’ve spent the last year feverishly traveling the continent — and, increasingly, the globe — to deliver my content. My 2019 was full of dozens of flights and way too many nights in strange hotel rooms.

Excuse me for sharing this ugly, privileged realization: executive lounges and business class just ain’t worth it.

So why did I keep doing it? Simple: it was the only option. In the pre-COVID days, most organizations were still thinking within a well-defined model for organizational learning & development:

  • Get a group in a room together.
  • Bring in an expert.
  • Learn for a few hours. A day or two max.
  • Send the group back to the workplace with “actionable takeaways”.

Sounds like a nice idea, right? Just like Neo in the Matrix, organizational learning has been predicated on this sage-on-a-stage mentality for a long time. It’s not just in learning & development. Conferences are set up the same way. Hit attendees with a firehouse of actionable takeaways and they’ll learn something. Right?

Applied Content Can’t Be Delivered in Actionable Takeaways

But here was the problem with the old paradigm. It sucked. Ask anyone in any organization in the whole world about training and you’ll hear some version of boooring.

Most trainings were never designed to be entertaining. Trainings were about learning stuff that’s important. Job skills. Systems and policies. Organizational values.

Through their structure of lecture, quizzes and derivative activities, most trainings are more concerned with delivering “actionable takeways” rather than really helping someone learn.

Look at it from your own experience. Think about the most important job skills that you use on a regular basis. Communicating. Innovating. Collaboration. Leadership. How did you learn them? Ask most people who do these skills well and you’ll hear some version of through experience.

Sure, some content needs to be trained. If you’re using a highly sophisticated system with high costs of a screw-up, then precision is fundamental. But applied content — content designed to shift behavior, attitude or process — can’t be delivered in this form. It simply doesn’t stick.

The Old Learning Model Was the Easiest to Implement

So why were we putting people through psychological safety trainings? Storytelling trainings? Diversity & inclusion trainings?

(Remember when Starbucks closed every store in America to put all of its front line staff through a half-day diversity & inclusion training? Do you think a half day of talking about racism fundamentally shifted the operations of the organization?)

There was one simple reason: efficiency. It was the easiest way to coordinate learning.

I saw it first hand. Every time I fielded a call from a prospective partner, I was provided with a set training length. No one called me and said: “I want my sales team to be amazing storytellers. What will it take?” Instead, I got calls like: “I’ve got a 2 hour slot at our sales kickoff. What can you teach them?”

Efficiency trumped effectiveness.

And then came COVID. Suddenly, we’re all in a new working environment. Google and Facebook have announced staff will work from home until the end of 2020. Shopify wants people at home until the end of 2021. Twitter and Square want people at home forever.

As organizations shift to work from home, there’s no training room to get people together in anymore.

Finally, the old model is broken.

The New Model for Remote Corporate Learning

So now we’ve got a blank slate. We know our people need to learn new skills. We know, according to almost all the recent future of work research, that we need to teach our people applied relational skills, like collaboration, innovation, creativity and storytelling, rather than what we would have once called “hard skills”.

What’s the best way to deliver that content?

Let’s look at the best model that we’ve created for adult learning: the university. Here are some characteristics of effective learning in a college or university context:

  • Participant directed. The only people who are there are the people who want to be there. (Mostly)
  • Consistent. Learning gets delivered over the course of a “term”.
  • Combines lectures with applied labs. Students receive content and work together or independently on application.
  • Focused. Students declare a major. Most of their courses fall under the umbrella.
  • Ritualized. A school year is punctuated with beginnings and endings. A course begins. There are ups and downs. It ends. Students celebrate and then progress to a higher level of learning.
  • Individualized. Students move between different courses according to their major, preferences and time commitments. Very few students share the exact same schedule.

How might some of these ideas be applied in a workplace context?

  1. Learning can be a weekly activity. Rather than attempting to learn kung fu in a day, in a remote world, workplace learning can be a regular weekly activity. Just like many employees have a weekly check-in with a manager, an effective and learning team could have a regular weekly learning session. This session might include an outside lecturer or an applied lab. It might be a “homework” session spent reading. The point would be creating consistency, so that employees can actually get better at the skill of learning.
  2. Employees can be part of a learning cohort, in addition to their regular team. Riffing off the above idea — imagine if every Tuesday at 2pm, members of, say, a marketing team disbanding to join a cross-functional team of learners from throughout the organization. Finance, sales, product, marketing, executives — for several hours, these roles would disappear as everyone became students together. It’d be a college curriculum embedded into the organization. Just like in college, the group would address big picture questions together. What is innovation? What is effective communication? What do we need to learn or become in order to do it together? By participating in this learning cohort, employees can be exposed to new ideas and bring new energy back to their teams. Learning expands through the organization.
  3. Lecturers can become embedded coaches. This is something I’m doing with my storytelling workshops already. (Read more below.) Rather than coming in and doing my song and dance for one day, I’m using collaboration tools to become part of the team. Everyone’s already working remotely anyway. A lecturer can be there on Slack or Microsoft Teams to answer questions and facilitate the regular learning activities. Trust can develop between the team and the coach. Learning can be accelerated over time. Teams can bring in different coaches over the course of the year, depending on their progress and what’s happening in their external environment, in the same way that an individual brings in a variety of health professionals, depending on their circumstances. (Got in a car accident? See a massage therapist for a few months. Got a communications problem? See a storyteller for a few months.)
  4. Learning can move from box ticking to core strategic function of an organization. Picture five years in the future. (I know it’s hard with COVID.) Chances are you’ll be using new, better technology. Chances are the technology will be changing your basic business systems, which means what you do on a day to day basis. Chances are you’ll have new modes of interacting with customers, teammates, employees and stakeholders. Now answer this question: what do you do? You are a professional learner. Your job is to adapt to the new way as quickly as you can, so you can help other people adapt. In five years the world will be full of learning organizations. Competitive advantage will be based on how quickly your team can learn. (We call this pivoting now, but it’s basically the same thing.) What would an organization based on learning look like? It probably will include some of these ideas here.
  5. Learning can extend from an internal resource development function to a core method of engaging your customers. You know why there are so many influencers in the world? See the answer above. There are so many things to learn and very few of us have built in teachers. Once upon a time, you had one boss and one religious leader. You looked to your parents and your community to learn what you needed to survive. What percentage of millennials are looking to their parents for guidance right now? Think it’s high? OK, boomer. As organizations get better at learning, they’ll naturally become better teachers to their customers. Look at the big tech companies — they are constantly teaching their customers how to use their product. Look, for example, at paint companies. They don’t just sell paint. They sell design taste. They teach their customers to be more thoughtful about their homes, so that they will buy more discerning paint. Every organization in the world will transform their attitude to their customers to fit in with this new reality of learning.

How We’ve Modified our Business Storytelling Workshops After COVID

I’ve been on zero planes in the last three months. It’s amazing. And sure, my business has suffered in the short term. But it’s given me time to rethink learning and teaching for our new reality.

Here are some of the core components I’ve integrated into my workshops:

  • A regular cadence of learning encounters. Rather than delivering all the content in one day, I’m taking 8 hours of learning and spreading it out over 4-6 Zoom calls, scheduled once every week or two. This way, I can build trust with participants while also showing up in their lives on a regular basis. Storytelling is consistently at the top of their mind.
  • A Flipped Classroom approach to learning. The Flipped Classroom is an idea drawn from the school system. Rather than the old days, when you learned at school and did homework at home, today, you do your homework at school and your reading at home. Learning sessions become highly engaged and applied. The theory and content can happen outside the Zoom call. Seth Godin has a great blog post on this. Make conversation the point of every learning encounter.
  • Integration into team collaboration tools. I love Slack for this, though this can also work with Microsoft Teams — or even a group chat. As a facilitator, I use a Slack function called shared channels. Basically, my organizational Slack connects with my client’s Slack, so that I can be present on their internal systems to discuss the learning outside of the Zoom call. I use this channel to share videos, articles and to have conversations relating to the content outside of the times specifically set aside for learning. This increases the cadence of learning while also acting like “office hours” in college. Every external consultant should be doing this. It’s awesome.
  • Increasing the 1-on-1 coaching time. This is the most laborious, but also the most effective. Now that I’m working remote with learners, there’s more time to digest and reflect on the content. There’s also more time to hop on a call and work through problems together. Again, the presence of the coach and learner together heightens the trust and psychological safety that all the research clearly shows leads to learning.
  • Custom designing every engagement. I’ve thrown away the idea of an off-the-shelf engagement. In order to keep a team’s attention over time, the work we do together needs to be directly related to what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis.

I still sell “storytelling workshops”. But my workshops aren’t technically workshops any longer. They are facilitated learning experiences. They aim to deliver specific content, of course. But they also aim to help people learn how to be learners.

Ultimately, this is the most important skill that an organization can develop in the future of work.

I’m very happy to talk about this in more depth. If you’re another learning consultant or an organization looking to implement something like this, please feel free to contact me here.