The Tools Barrier

Have you ever sat through a course on presentation skills or time management or techniques for problem solving where you were presented with – and tried out – a long list of seemingly clever and useful tools and techniques, dutifully filled out the evaluation sheet at the end of the day with such words as useful and interesting, only to find, on reflection that you haven’t used any of them, not a single one, in practice?

“I’ve got too many real problems to deal with before I could consider taking the time out to use those problem solving techniques.”

“I haven’t the time for time management tools.”

“Those presentation techniques are alright for some … but I couldn’t really use them myself.”

This phenomenon I call the tools barrier and, in my view, surfaces in a shockingly high amount of current training in business and industry.

What are the causes of this phenomenon?

 I believe there are factors coming into play here from both the supply (trainer. facilitator) side and the user (participant, trainee) side..

Supply side factors

The trainer – perhaps filled with good intentions – has cooked up the techniques in his/her mind but never tried them in practice, and certainly not on him/herself.

The tool is presented as requiring perfect behaviour in the user.

The presentation of the tool has been too closely associated with the trainer’s wish to deliver a successful training course i.e. it is force-fitted into a case example which doesn’t work, or the trainer imposes the tool and doesn’t allow local adaptation.

The tool has been ‘power-pointed’ out of practical existence or, on the other hand, the tool is presented in poorly photocopied format

The tool is presented in an overly complicated way

The tool is presented in a way that patronises the user or insults his/her intelligence

The tool example arrives at a solution that is so obvious that people think: I could have come up with that without wasting time on using the tool !

The tool is jargon-ridden in a way that makes it inaccessible

User side factors

The trainee has entered the training course having decided (consciously or sub-consciously) that the current status quo is fine and that he/she isn’t about to take on board anything new.

The trainee simply doesn’t like being taught new tricks by someone else, particularly an “outsider”

The trainee cannot visualise the tool working in practice and the amount of effort required to try to visualise it is outweighed by the relief of deciding not to do so.

The correct use of the tool calls forth a behaviour or attitude that doesn’t accord with the trainee’s current beliefs, attitudes or desires.

The user cannot see the relevance of the tool to his/her problem at hand, or feels it is being force-fitted into a situation

The tool emphasises personal weaknesses in the user that he/she would rather keep private. For example: drawing skills, mathematical skills etc.

The tool requires behaviours or attitudes which the user doesn’t associate with doing “real work” or which they see as wasting company time and money e.g. drawing a picture


These factors on both the participant and facilitator sides lead to workshops that can be interesting, enjoyable and engaging and yet which result in little or no personal or organizational change.

Often trainers have set off into the sunset, clutching their fees, and it is left for the organisation to attempt to tap into any motivational buzz created by the session. Often there simply isn’t a “through line”, a clear process of harvesting the learning in action. Even when actions are set at the end of the day, without the formal mandate to effect the actions, then it will all die a death by Monday morning.

This can all be remedied by proper, overt commitment and real support and empowerment AFTER the event.

However, there can also be a ritual that kicks in that scuppers follow-on as well. This is the ritual of the training itself becoming a kind of “fake revelation” where the day reveals and uncovers all kinds of innovation and change potential. Actions can even be identified and stated, but there’s an underlying assumption that “this is just a workshop”. Workshops then become ghost activities that can move, communicate, inspire, but never physically affect reality. Many organisations fall into this cultural habit where training becomes a ritual of exchange, learning and revelation but where its status is lower or less tangible than “real world”. This can only be resolved if training is embedded into normal working, and where action planning matches action realisation. There have to be real names by actions, resources allocated and real consequences of non realisation.

That requires tools and techniques to be linked quickly and authentically to real problems and challenges. We need to create a follow through, an opportunity in a real calendar to put the tools into practice with visibility and accountability. That makes training real, rather than a tick box exercise.

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