Nice Body, Shame About the Rest! (or, why so many learning and development and change initiatives fail)


Why is it so many learning and development (L&D) and change initiatives fail to deliver?

I have recently had anecdotal feedback from several agencies that contributed to the last APS State of the Service survey.  While individual results indicated that up to 80% of staff had been involved in L&D activities, in the preceding year, in some cases only about 20% of those staff thought the L&D had made any difference!

In my coaching engagements it is not uncommon for people to say to me that “I am trying to develop my skills and change but nobody seems to care or notice”, or “I am trying to change but nothing is different at work”.  While in this post I will refer primarily to L&D programs similar issues arise in other investments such as culture change initiatives for example, there have been many occasions when I have been engaged to advise on changes required to address low staff morale.  When I engage with staff to determine the causal factors I hear the old refrain, “We have been through all this before.  In the end nothing ever changes”.

There often seems to be a sense in organisations that by running a process (an L&D program; investing in a coaching engagement for an individual; running focus groups to determine causes of staff dissatisfaction; etc) things will automatically change for the better.  Unfortunately it isn’t as simple as buying a nice body shell.  There needs to be investment in a motor to power change and wheels to allow it to run.

It can be instructive to look at this issue through the lens of what is required of the Individual, Stakeholders and Structures to achieve a positive return on investment in L&D and similar change initiatives1.

The Individual

First and foremost, the individual needs to be motivated to change and to embrace learnings from the L&D program or other change initiative.  We can spend as much as we like on L&D to teach an individual new skills but if they are not motivated to learn and change then change will not happen.

For many the motivation to learn and change will come from their own self awareness or personal desire to improve themselves.  Sometimes the motivation needs to be initiated through story telling within the organisation “this is where we are going and why we need to change”, staff culture surveys may provide the impetus, and diagnostic tools like 360o. feedback diagnostics can also be helpful at times.

There is no question that a sizeable part of the responsibility to achieve change and to reap the benefits of L&D, offered by an organisation, lies with the individual themselves.  However, personal motivation and effort are not always enough without ongoing support from stakeholders and the structures within which an individual works.


Stakeholders are anyone who has an interest or concern with what the individual does or is endeavouring to do.  For the purposes of this post I am referring primarily to an individual’s supervisors.

I frequently hear supervisors refer to a person’s performance and say something along the lines of … “Well I have sent them on all sorts of courses to improve their skills”.  The sub-text is “What more can I do!”.  I also encounter situations where someone wants me to work as a coach with an individual to fix some aspect of that person’s performance.  In these cases my question is always, “How committed are you to supporting that person through the change process in the workplace?”

There are a number of aspects to the support that stakeholders need to commit to.

Firstly, supervisors need to always keep focussed on the 70:20:10 L&D model developed by the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL)2.  Simply this states that:

70% of learning comes from doing tough jobs;

20% comes from the boss; and

10% comes from courses and reading.

That is, the L&D course that has been invested in is only the body shell.  For real learning to be achieved individuals need the opportunity to apply the new skills in the workplace with the active engagement of their supervisor.  The body needs a motor to power it and wheels to enable it to run.

Secondly, supervisors need to demonstrate that the investment in L&D is important by actively engaging with staff, who have been involved in the L&D exercise, to learn what the staff member has learned and how they intend to employ new skills and embed them.  This is part of the personal development discussion that should occur in conjunction with discussion on performance plans.  The plans should also make provision to assess improvement in performance over time. An article included McKinsey and Company’s quarterly report in January 2014 also addresses the reasons why leadership development programs fail (see  In part the article sates that:

“We frequently find that companies pay lip service to the importance of developing leadership skills but have no evidence to quantify the value of their investment. When businesses fail to track and measure changes in leadership performance over time, they increase the odds that improvement initiatives won’t be taken seriously.”

Thirdly, supervisors need to actively support staff in having the opportunities to use, and thereby embed, the skills or new behaviours they have gained through the L&D activity.  This goes to the 70% learning on the job referred to above.


The third essential element in supporting change in individuals is about ensuring appropriate structures are in place. This is commonly overlooked.

Structures can refer to many things.  They can include ensuring the organisation has appropriate processes in place to prioritise development activities and then assess improvement in performance flowing from the L&D.  Structures might include putting in place systems that allow rotation of staff to different roles as part of the learning experience, etc.


Achieving change through L&D is not merely a matter of investing in a nice looking package.  If organisations want to achieve a real return then they must also commit to a motor to drive it (supervisors and structure are key here) and giving it the wheels on which to run (giving people the opportunity to practice, display and embed their new skills).


  1. This structure draws on the change model developed by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler (2011). Change anything (1st ed.) Piatkus, London. ISBN978-0-74599-5568-7
  2. Lombardo, Michael M; Eichinger, Robert W (1996). The Career Architect Development Planner (1st ed.). Minneapolis: Lominger. p. iv. ISBN 0-9655712-1-1.
  3. ‘Why leadership development programs fail’, by Pierre Gurdijian, Thomas Halbeisen and Kevin Lane, McKinsey Quarterly, McKinsey and Company, January 2014

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