Creating and Using Reinforcement Goals

Tips for setting SMART reinforcement goals.

Reinforcement goals are often confused with learning goals. In many cases, these two are the exact opposite. For example, with classroom training, the focus is on awareness, but the goal for the reinforcement won't be; it's often the contrary. To determine the proper goals, the first step is to identify the problem.

Too often the development of reinforcement courses starts with goals instead of the real issues. This could create a situation where you're solving problems that aren't there. A good discussion is necessary to determine the real problem in order to set the reinforcement goals. Diagnostic questions at this stage could include:

  • Why is that important?
  • What will they actually do?
  • What bad things will happen if they don’t know or do this?
  • How will they know if they're doing it right?
  • What does it look like if they get it wrong?
  • What things cause most problems in daily practice and why?

A common situation is that the goal or the objective is too large. For example, the participants need to be better managers. That’s like saying meet me on the other side of the world. It’s a destination, but it doesn’t help you to arrange your agenda, book a flight, a hotel, and arrange transportation. Once you start breaking these down you can formulate much more specific routes to get where you need to go.

Because many reinforcement programs are based on effecting behavior change, many goals are based on doing. A lot of times, reinforcement objectives include words like define, describe, or explain because these are observable actions you can witness. But the purpose of the reinforcement objective isn't to define something, it's to do it. For every reinforcement objective, ask:

  1. Is this something the learner would actually do in their work?
  2. Can I tell when they have done it?

If the answer to either of those questions is no, reconsider the objectives. When setting a goal for reinforcement, also consider the following elements:

  • Remember (tell someone what it is to understand)
  • Explain (what it means)
  • Apply/do (use it)
  • Analyze (look at a situation and explain why)
  • Evaluate (critical review)

You can imagine that 'remember' is easier than 'evaluate.' Many reinforcement specialists see this list as a progression.

First, one must understand before one can analyze. Of course, this thought is correct but not always standard for a good reinforcement result. It can be good for a participant to analyze a number of meetings to understand the intended principle. Or a self-evaluation can lead to a better understanding.

In fact, one could create a great reinforcement course by changing the order completely. This form of mix and match still must meet the reinforcement goals. When the goal is that the participants start using a certain management model, the reinforcement design will not stop at understanding.

When setting the reinforcement goal, the determination of the real problem is essential at the same time. As soon as the reinforcement specialist and the client define the reinforcement goal, they want to know why this goal hasn't been reached. What's the gap between their current situation and where they want to be? The reinforcement specialist will pay attention to the different gaps:

  • Knowledge gap (is the information enough?)
  • Skills gap (don’t know how)
  • Motivation gap
  • Environment gap (enough support to be successful and enough time)
  • Communications gap (enough directions, procedures, etc.)

So which comes first? The reinforcement objectives or the gap? There is no clear answer to that question.

In daily practice, the best reinforcement course is reached by constantly deepening the gap analysis and intensifying the reinforcement goals. One thing is feeding the other. As soon as this thinking process is finalized, only then is a focused and effective reinforcement course built.