Management Development Approaches Which Work

Implementing an extensive management development programme can be an expensive business. The costs of failure are high, not just financially, but also for the credibility of those responsible for administering and delivering it. A poorly executed management development programme can also seriously damage management perceptions of the value of training. Clearly, getting it right is a pretty crucial issue. Here are a few ideas to be going along with.

Why some management development programmes fail

Our researches at DBA have shown us that the factors which most typically contribute to the failure of management development programmes are as follows:

  • the programme is designed purely from the organization's viewpoint, with little or no thought to what’s in it for the individuals involved
  • the programme is totally prescriptive and makes no allowance for flexibility in either its content or its delivery
  • the programme makes unrealistic time demands, i.e., it expects participants to meet a schedule for personal learning which does not take account of other work pressures and commitments
  • the programme offers a range of ‘fixed’ courses and development opportunities, but is unable to cope with individual development needs which fall outside this core
  • the programme has a highly developed theoretical content, but provides little in the way of guidance or support to help participants practise using these theories, or apply them in the workplace
  • the programme content is derived from what trainers want to teach, rather than from any real understanding of what managers within the organization need to know and do.

The best management development programmes are clearly those which avoid these various pitfalls in their design and implementation. Critical design issues would, from DBA’s own experiences, appear to be:

  • flexibility - in the learning topics which can be studied and the learning methods available
  • practicality - in providing practical, tried and tested tools, techniques and strategies rather than just theories and concepts
  • integration - in combining learning activities as far as possible with actual problems and experiences in the workplace
  • ongoing support - in making advice and coaching available on an ad hoc, day-to-day basis as required.

Helping managers to ‘learn how to learn’

Most people will feel they need quite substantial support and guidance in the early stages of a development programme. It is important early on to ‘prepare the ground’ and set some parameters for individual learning. If this is not done, then management learning can become unfocused and very difficult to evaluate in terms of its effectiveness. At DBA we have found that some group events, early on a management development programme, will help to do four things:

  1. to create a ‘sense of community’ within the learning group, i.e., a feeling that they are learning together, rather than on their own
  2. to gain understanding for and commitment to the development programme (peer pressure is a powerful resource when it comes to persuading some of the ‘sceptics’ in the group)
  3. to create a focused sense of direction and purpose, i.e., a shared vision of what the programme is about, and where it is heading
  4. to enable people, within a controlled environment, to start thinking about and planning their personal development needs.

As participants start to feel more comfortable and confident, then increasingly opportunities to communicate on a more individual level will start to emerge. At this point, methods such as coaching and one-to-one tuition become more appropriate, and can provide excellent opportunities to help ensure that theoretical learning is properly applied in workplace practice.

Gradually, learners will become less dependent on the ‘guiding hand’ of the trainer, and more able and confident in making their own decisions and choices about their ongoing development as managers. At this point the learning becomes self-directed, and the trainer needs to be careful here not to inhibit enthusiasm and ideas by being overly prescriptive.

The aim of any management development programme should, in our view, be ultimately to create a state of mind and understanding in which it is possible for the individual learner to continue learning through trial and experience, and to do this independently of the trainer as far as possible. Management development, therefore, is an activity which has no finite end. The function of the management development programme itself is to ‘kickstart’ the learning process and to give it structure and support, until it is mature enough to become self-directing.

Control structures and mechanisms

Our experiences show that, whilst management development programmes need to have in-built flexibility, they need also to have a ‘core‘ structure in order to remain focused. Using competence frameworks or a range of clearly defined management attributes as the starting point for managers’ development can help to provide clear learning goals for participants in the programme, and a clear means by which to measure their development progress. In addition to this, personal development plans can also help to create a structure and focus for individual development. These will need to be regularly reviewed and updated and should, as a minimum, include:

  • clearly defined development objectives
  • plans for how these objectives might be achieved
  • plans for testing and reviewing development against the objectives identified.

A third control mechanism which we have found to work well with larger groups as well as small groups, is to carry out personal consultations with participants at regular intervals during the first few months of the programme’s life. These need to be carefully planned and structured to provide information about:

  • participants’ feelings about the programme, its design and structure
  • recognition and acceptance of their identified development needs
  • learning progress to date, and the relevance of this learning to actual workplace problems and events
  • the ease with which participants are finding it possible to manage and integrate their learning with other work commitments.

Information from these personal consultations can be useful in helping supporting trainers to:

  • guide participants towards appropriate learning resources and materials
  • advise and coach participants, in how to test and implement what they have learned
  • identify perceived weaknesses in the programme, and possible actions which may be necessary to correct these
  • maintain the enthusiasm of participants and keep the development impetus going.
For more information

DBA has wide experience of management development programmes and the issues involved in their design and implementation. If your organization is about to embark on a management development programme, or is looking for ways in which to revitalise an existing management development programme, why not email us now!


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