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Best Training Practices
Will Kenny
3927 York Ave N
Robbinsdale, MN 55422

Playing by the Rules: #1
Building Awareness

"business as usual" can be a tough habit to break

nutshell imageIn a Nutshell . . .

A large operations function in a regional company had repeated a fairly clear message about their philosophy for departmental budgets for years. But their audience, the department managers, just kept doing things the way they always had.

A dramatic change in delivery of the message was needed to get more realistic and more creative budgeting from their departments. The company was determined to change the rules of the game, as defined by the culture and past practices. They desperately wanted to base discussions on key business questions rather than past habits. A series of brief video skits, played by professional actors in a "limbo" setting, caught the attention of participants at the beginning of each session and offered an easy opening to more productive discussions.

Case Study Summary

Business Function:

A large technical operations unit that provided significant information processing services for a regional company with extensive operations in several states.

They Said:

Management wanted employees to embrace "zero-based budgeting" in their annual planning, but most department managers simply updated the previous year's budget without really incorporating much analysis and planning into their efforts. They intended to create an eight-week course for all managers with budget responsibility, walking through the entire budgeting process with an emphasis on taking a fresh look at the purpose, and methods, of creating a budget proposal.

My Take:

The company's challenge was to break old habits. We needed to position each step in the process as a question to be answered, rather than as a near repetition of the previous year's work.


Each of the eight sessions was introduced by a brief "play", presented on videotape, in which actors performed a scene that raised a question. To command their attention, these little dramas were generally humorous, and took place in a bare "limbo" background, no props or set, much like an improvisation group might use. The course session then answered that "question", and at the end of the class session, a second "play" was shown that set the stage for homework assignments they applied to their own budget, in between class sessions. (I also created the content and supporting materials for the core of the eight-week course.)


Discussions during class sessions were much more focused on how to use the budget process as a truly useful planning tool. Participants were more willing to look forward at their goals and needs, instead of merely copying what they did in the past.

First, a personal note . . .

I get very cranky when I see unusual or creative techniques applied just for show. Advertisements that win awards but don't help sales, training components that startle participants but don't enhance learning, unusual settings, actions, and language that are there just to be unusual . . .

I have no tolerance for putting the creative ego of the consultant or writer or producer above the results achieved for the client!

The need

I am happy to take a somewhat unusual approach if it will advance the goals of the client, and in this situation, something unusual is precisely what is needed. The problem was "the usual", that people just wouldn't put aside the way they had done their budgets in the past. They lived by assumptions about management expectations that no longer applied.

The client asked me to design a course to reinforce critical aspects of the new approach to budgeting with managers, with the course scheduled to be delivered in weekly sessions over a period of many weeks. In my design, each weekly session had one central theme for the day, and at the end of the session we set up a homework assignment to prepare the employees for the theme of the following week.

To establish the theme for each week's lesson, and to preview the following week's theme, I created short video segments to be shown at the beginning and end of class. This helped to quickly focus the group on one theme for the class session, and, at the same time, engaged and relaxed the employees so that they were more willing to talk in class.

A shared opening experience also gave managers from different departments something in common, something interesting, that could be related to the theme of the day. It provided common ground for managers who didn't know each other, and who dealt with different functions, which greatly facilitated discussion.

A Typical Skit

This class session focused on the mission of the department, and the importance of making the budget reflect the mission and goals, rather than the other way around. That is, you have to set your direction first, and then use the budgeting process as a tool to get to your chosen destination.

This also opened the discussion about whether operations management was serious about the "zero-based" approach to budgeting. We took an unspoken concern and made it an explicit discussion point in the training.

The Script

We see two sides of a telephone conversation. Again, there are no props or set, just the actors working in a bare environment.


Hello, Long Gone Travel. Can I help you?

Ah, yes, hello, I'd like to buy an airplane ticket, please.

Yes, certainly, where would you like to go?

Gee, gosh, I don't know, whatever you recommend, I guess . . .

I'm sorry, did you need me to recommend an airline, a flight, maybe a hotel? I need to know where you're going, what you have in mind . . .

Gee, I don't know, how about someplace warm?
A lot of people do that, don't they?

Uh . . . yeah, as you say, a lot of people do that. Mexico?

Sure! Mexico sounds great, give me a ticket!

Or, of course, there's Jamaica, Bermuda, or even , uh, you know . . .

(interrupting) Oh, I don't know, maybe Mexico's wrong.
Bermuda, there, is that nice?

What? Oh, yeah, Bermuda is wonderful! It's a great place for a warm weather vacation. So when do you want to go?

Yes, when do I want to go?

That's the question! When do you want to go?

Well, when do most people go? Is there a
normal time when most people go to Bermuda?

Normal? I don't know if I like to think of it is normal, you know, but a lot of people go there when it's cold here, you know, to get out of the winter.

That would be great.

But then, again, a lot of people go there in the off-season, because it's a little cheaper, not so crowded, and . . .

(interrupting, exasperated) Questions, questions, questions!
How many more questions do I have to answer?
I didn't know I'd have to make all these decisions!
I just want to take a vacation!

But I have to ask all these questions in order to get you an airplane ticket. When do you want to go, where do you want to go, how long do you want...

See! See! See! There's another one!
Can't you just take care of everything,
and give me the information when it's all done?

Huh? Oh, well, sir, I, uh, we usually don't work that way. Our customers usually make all the decisions.

Oh, NO, I'm not falling for that one, no way!
That happens at the office all the time!
People ask me to tell them what I think,
I write a report, I turn it in, and then
they come back to tell me what I was supposed
to say in the first place. So just save me a
lot of time, please, just send me a ticket.

Okay, if that's the way you want it. Just give me your name and address and I'll send you something that tells you, uh, where you're going, and when you're leaving, I guess . . .

© 2007 Best Training Practices -- Will Kenny

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