John, a manager wants to make a change.  He wants his people to start using a new software program, and stop using an old one.  John explains to his team:

‘This program will make your life easier, save you time, and it’s easy to use.  Here is an e-learning explaining how to use it, let me know if you have any questions’

Johns team, have a look at the e-learning, and they understand that John wants them to do it, they have a look at the e-learning and quickly get bored, and rapidly switch to watching YouTube videos of dancing penguins.

When John is walking around the office, everyone has the new program open, but when he is not looking they continue to do what they’ve always done, using the old system.

John decides that he needs to ‘reinforce the change,’ so he sits besides the team members one by one and demonstrates the behaviour expected, and re-iterates that he expects to see this behaviour in the future.

Obviously this doesn’t work either and here is why.


I believe there is a fundamental flaw with the premise to ‘reinforce change’ or ‘reinforce learning’ and that this flaw is an excuse to not look at ourselves as leaders, change agents or learning designers. Simply put.

Did John make people want to do it?

For you, for me, or for anyone to learn, or to practice what we’ve learned, we need to want to do it.  The idea of reinforcement comes in because the initial approach to change only looked at the behaviour – the what needs to change, and failed to look at why this change would be better, from the point of view of the participant or the learner. 

Milton Erickson, the famous psychologist, was a master of helping people make changes. Erickson had a basic premise, which is that, when people experience a better option, they will invariably go for the better option.

If the option looks like it makes no difference, or it is not clearly a better option, then why would I as a learner or someone who is part of a change management program want to take it, instead of doing what I am already doing?

We, you and I, as leaders, or learning designers, or change managers need to work harder with people to create an environment that respects people, that respects what they do already works, and that they already have an intelligent approach.

We need to ask ourselves is what we are proposing REALLY a better option.

‘Reinforcing learning’ assumes that the problem is with the learner or participant who is refusing to change (for whatever reason).  I think that the problem is with us, with our presentation of the options, or providing the experience of a better option.

It is worth considering questions like:

Why would someone want to do it, given what they do already works?

How can I show better options than are there already?

How can we work together to make some better options we can own together?

You might be wondering why the photograph above

Plants simply grow in the right environment. People are the same.