Measure learning impact through the plateau of latent potential

Do any of these scenarios ring true for you?

  • You’ve completed a new project at work and were sure these would’ve put you in line for a promotion but the opportunity hasn’t arisen.
  • Or you’ve completed a course on a topic and upon completion started following the steps and you still aren’t achieving the results you expected
  • Or you’ve accessed coaching to gain clarity on a topic, but and are going around in circles. Not getting the clarity you expect as quickly as you’d anticipate

Your most likely response is to feel frustrated/disappointed/aggrieved etc… where are the results I expect after putting in the time/effort?

I’m sure you’ve experienced this personally (I sure have!), and professionally too. Perhaps you’ve had similar conversations with learners about their expectations. Or wondering why you haven’t seen the impact you expected through learning evaluation. You asked all the right questions in scoping.

In this article I’m going to share why this is ok, and typical behaviour. Based on a model within a book called Atomic Habits by James Clear. And what this can mean for L&D in terms of development expectations and measuring impact over time.

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The plateau of latent potential

So, you experience any of the above, either personally, or professionally for a L&D project you’ve invested a lot of time into. You measure the impact and don’t see the results you expected.

This is where the Plateau of Latent potential comes into play….

Plateau of latent potential in learning evaluation

The model talks about our expectations regarding progress, we expect it to be linear. Put in the time and effort, start making changes and results will show.

But what actually happens is slightly different. Sometimes it can take months or years for the fruits of our labour to come to life. This can lead us to enter the ‘valley of disappointment’ and feel discouraged by our lack of results.

The important think to note here is that there is always a breaking point. Where our expectations and stored potential cross paths and our efforts are eventually realised.

Personal plateau example:

I’ve found this model a real eye opener both personally and professionally (which we’ll come to next!). For context and clarity regarding the model here’s a personal example from me and how I see this model come into play.

I’ve spent more hours than I could measure reading, learning and practising skills to build my L&D blog and increase my readership.

My expectation: the more hours I put in learning new skills = the more readers that will come.

My reality: hours spent = readership growing at a much slower rate than I’d expected. Cue the valley of disappointment.

But that doesn’t mean that that time, effort and energy has gone to waste. It’s simply stored away. Inching me closer, step by step, with each positive learning and habit created.


What does this mean for me in L&D?

I love this model because it reiterates the point that not all learning opportunities, or behavioural changes return immediate results, in fact, most wont.

As learning and development professionals we often look for immediate to short term (6 months being short term) measures of success. Granted, there are times when immediacy of learning is appropriate. But often learning is sometimes stored for months or even years before the right moment strikes, things fall into place and potential is realised.

This means that when you measure the impact of the learning, if the timings haven’t aligned correctly, you may find learners reporting that they aren’t using the learning, or behaviour hasn’t changed. This is because they’re still in the valley of disappointment as their results vs expectations aren’t currently matching up.

Latent potential is huge! As an L&D professional I typically look for short-term (6 months ish) measures of success. I, and the stakeholder wants to measure the impact learning has had within a specific time frame and report on it.

But if I measure too early, I won’t get the results I’m looking for. This could write the programme off as not meeting the need due to the lack of measurable impact.

But what if it is making a difference, it just isn’t measurable yet?

I’m now coming at learning evaluation from a new perspective. Perhaps this learning is being stored somewhere. Their latent potential is waiting, somewhere in their subconscious mind and when the opportunity strikes they’ll be prepared.

How as learning and development professionals can we account for this?

Plateau of latent potential in learning evaluation

Above I’ve outlined when the perfect time to measure the impact is.

Easy for me to say, but not so easy to find in practice. We can’t measure latent potential, which is essentially a blind spot until the right moment arises. As L&D professionals we need to trust that the latent potential is there. And that at the right moment the relevant skills, knowledge or behaviour will be realised.

What we can measure however, is realised potential.

Doing this involves L&D taking a less ‘typical’ approach to learning evaluation. This would mean measuring impact over much longer periods of time, even years later. Longitudinal evaluation will encourage learners to reflect on when their potential was realised, and the impact it had.

There is a question mark here for you/your organisation. Will it be organisationally acceptable to report on the impact of learning over much longer time frames?

As L&D professionals and as organisations we should open our minds to the plateau of latent potential and measure impact over much longer periods. It may not fit with our annual reporting procedures, but it’s likely to be where the truly valuable information is stored.


The plateau of latent potential is within all of us, although we may not realise it until much later down the development journey. It’s a powerful concept that could change the way we evaluate impact of development opportunities. In order to measure for latent potential, carry out both short term and long-term learning evaluation.

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