Sustainment: The Forgotten Business Strategy

on January 8, 2019

Imagine you’ve just launched an expensive technology update and subsequent training to educate your workforce. You’ve spent loads of energy and budget on not only the tech itself, but also on getting your people up to speed and changing the way they work. Now that the program has fully launched, it’s time to celebrate!

Not so fast. Put down the champagne.

Sure, rollout is complete and feedback on the program is great, but if you want people to remember what you’ve taught them, then your job is far from over. Why? Because brains are wired to forget.

Wired to Forget

Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve tells us that if we form a memory without repetition, we will forget that memory. The brain is wired to forget. Just imagine remembering every statistic of every sport you’ve ever watched, being able to recite every book you’ve read, knowing every phone number you’ve ever dialed, and remembering the mundane details of every day. It’d take forever to remember the one thing you needed! Forget about it. Your brain is doing you a favor by dropping the memories you don’t need.

What’s more, recent studies by Ronald Davis and Yi Zhong in 2016 and 2017 have identified what they call intrinsic forgetting, driven by “forgetting cells” that actively degrade memory engrams.

Our brains are trying to forget. In the short term, the brain remembers a lot. It hasn’t yet decided what’s important. However, once the brain has decided which memories are important, it moves them from the hippocampus to long-term parking in the cortex. This makes our job of getting people to learn and, just as importantly, remember something, tricky.

In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus found that we’ll forget half of newly acquired information within days. That’s the stuff our brain flagged as unimportant. So, unless we can convince the brain that our sparkly new training program is worth hanging onto, it’s going to actively forget so it can make room for the latest episode of Game of Thrones. And that’s where sustainment comes in.

It’s Not an Afterthought

While sustainment comes after training, it shouldn’t be an afterthought. Sustainment is a critical part of every behavior change, must be baked into your program, and must be an integral part of your underlining strategy from the start. It’s not an add-on. It’s not a nice-to-have. If you’re not going to sustain it, don’t spend the money and time in the first place.

You can have the most engaging learning program ever made with content that creates strong memories to extend the forgetting curve. But if it’s not sustained, the brain’s not flagging it as important, so there’s no cortex parking spot for your training.

Four Elements of Sustainment

Often, what seems like a simple enough concept to adopt is surprisingly difficult. We’ve all been there. You attend training. You even like the ideas and plan on changing your behavior. You completely buy into the strategy behind the training.

You think, “Just keep practicing what I learned this week? Sure! No problem.”

Next up, unforeseen deadlines and new projects. You feel overwhelmed, short on time, and stressed. Your trusty old behaviors feel easy and familiar. You don’t use what you learned just a few days ago. You don’t talk about it, and you don’t even think about it. Then the brain says, “I don’t need to hang on to this” and you forget it.

Something that stuck with me from a presentation I attended by Art Kohn is that sustainment doesn’t have to be overly complicated – it just needs a plan. The way it’s been showing up in my work, and the way I’ve been talking about it, is that sustainment needs to get people:

  • Thinking about it
  • Talking about it
  • Doing it

A great example is movies or books. The ones that were just okay, I didn’t reflect on afterwards and didn’t talk about them with friends and family. However, the great ones (and sometimes the awful ones) cause me to think about them and talk about them with others. In some cases, they’ve even resulted in behavior change. I can no longer hear “Camelot” without responding, “it’s only a model” under my breath. The important life lessons I learned from Monty Python and the Holy Grail stick with me to this day because I talked about it, thought about it, and even adopted behaviors from it. It’s been years since I’ve seen the movie, yet I can still quote near-entire scenes. That forgetting curve has been extremely lengthened.

Get your people thinking, talking, and doing – the first three elements of sustainment –– and you’re well on your way. “But, John,” you say, “you said there were four elements….”

The Fourth Element: Leaders Walking the Walk

A colleague of mine shared a story with me. He said he was working with a security client that wanted to create a learning program to help their sales team better deliver on the promise of ensuring no customer was under-protected or oversold. Yet the company wasn’t prepared to sustain the objectives of the training, as employees were rewarded primarily on sales. The incentive directly conflicted with the goal of the training. Because of this, the training initiative was doomed before it started, and the sales team would likely go right back to their old ways if they didn’t attend to the big picture.

This leads me to the fourth part of sustainment and it has to do with the environment. What barriers are in the way of adopting the behavior change? Are managers and leaders modeling the new behavior, or are they dissuading people from adopting it? Leaders need to believe in what they’re teaching their people. Managers need to be changing alongside the masses. If the people setting the tone for the organization aren’t walking the walk, why should anyone else?

Everyone needs to be revisiting new knowledge on a regular basis so their brains understand the nugget they recently received is important and so the act of sustainment no longer becomes recognized as “sustainment,” but as something automatically done each day. When done regularly, sustainment is the single secret to lasting change and can become the business strategy that helps your organization achieve things you didn’t think were possible.

Next up? A blog dedicated to the elements of sustainment you can start incorporating to help your people sustain the training.

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