Soft requests, or, what do clients really want?

I had an appropriately distanced lunch with someone in my field whose main internal client is reorganizing. That client wants training that will, among other things, help employees understand the latest version of the strategic plan.

Coincidentally, I recently came across materials from a long-ago workshop led by Joe Harless. The materials were for the topic of “front-end analysis,” a term Joe coined.

Front-End Analysis is about money, first and foremost. It’s about how to spend money in ways that will be most beneficial to the organization and the performers in that organization.

It is also about avoiding spending money on silly things like instruction when there is no instructional problem, or training everybody in everything when you can get by with training fewer people in a few things, or flying lots of trainees in for a course when a send-out checklist would do.

J. H. Harless, “An Analysis of Front-End Analysis,”
Improving Human Performance, 1973 (4)

Joe’s workshop in part looked at how to translate a “soft request” into something that would pass the Heydad Test. (“Hey, Dad, watch me while I understand the strategic plan” does not.)

One page from the workshop:

What was behind these requests?

  • “A sense of organizational history” — the client wanted to address the problem of loggers cutting down too many of the wrong trees.
  • Soldiers who “appreciate their cultural heritage” would be better at cleaning their rifles.
  • The problem of workers not appreciating “the internal beauty” of the widget operation turned out to be the problem that workers did not know how to operate the widget-making equipment.
  • As for the request to make students more globally aware? The actual request was showing foreign service personnel how to avoid violating local customs.

Which leads to Harless’s prize, the world’s softest soft request:

Educate everyone in the company in communicating, believing, and using common sense to creatively engender the new MBO principles.

In this sentence he found nine different reasons why the request is soft (and thus clues for what you’d need to clarify):

  1. EDUCATE: the request includes a specific solution.
  2. EVERYONE: a non-specific “who.”
  3. COMMUNICATING: a collection of behaviors.
  4. BELIEVING: an affective state.
  5. USING COMMON SENSE: covert behavior (how can you recognize this when you see it?).
  6. CREATIVELY: non-specific criterion.
  7. ENGENDER: non-specific level of proficiency.
  8. NEW: new performance.
  9. MBO (management-by-objectives) PRINCIPLES: subject-matter focus.

The actual situation that the request was describing? Supervisors needed to negotiate individual-level objectives with their subordinates. To deal with actual problems, Harless and his associates developed a two-hour workshop in which participants practiced using a job aid to help cover the key elements of the negotiation.

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