Succession Planning

Imagine that you’re an auto mechanic. After working as a mechanic for many years, you take a job training other mechanics. You get to work in the field you love and the trainees seem to like you. Life is good.

Then your employer is acquired by a larger company. They see the word “trainer” in your title, so they assign you to their training department. The problem is that their trainers are driving instructors; nobody on the team really understands what you do. They ask you to pitch in and teach a driving class now and then, but you still spend the majority of your time training mechanics and your bosses mostly leave you alone, so you stay.

The plot thickens: Your team is reorganized, and you get assigned to a manager responsible for dispatchers. At the same time, the company begins hiring fewer mechanics. Now there’s less demand for you to train mechanics, and the focus of the team shifts to dispatching: “We have two dispatchers out sick today. We need all hands on deck to answer the phones!” Your mechanic skills are underused and becoming obsolete, so you decide to move on.

When you give your two weeks’ notice, your bosses suddenly realize that you perform a critical function that no one else on the team knows how to do. They ask you to document everything you do, and they send driving instructors to attend your mechanic training so they can deliver it (or teach it to someone else) after you’re gone. Yeah, right.

What can we learn from this cautionary tale? If you have an employee who performs a critical function:

  • Make sure you understand that function and appreciate its importance;
  • During one-on-one meetings, ask the employee if they’re satisfied with their job. If not, ask what changes he or she would like to see to make it more satisfactory;
  • Don’t wait until the employee gives notice to try to find and train a successor.
permalink  9 Apr 14 10:30 PM · Comments (0) · Tags: Career, Training
Tip: Use Google to Display a Break Timer

Teaching a class and need a countdown timer to display remaining break time? In the past, I’ve used Microsoft’s (formerly SysInternals’) free ZoomIt utility, whose primary function is to enlarge portions of the screen, but which can also display a break timer. But maybe you don’t need the zoom functionality, or you’re using a PC on which you can’t install additional software. In that case, just visit Google and search for “timer 10 minutes” (replacing 10 with the length of your break). Voilà!

permalink 19 Feb 14 11:00 AM · Comments (0) · Tags: Software, Training

Interesting: “On June 20th 2013, we decided that our 4-day work week at Treehouse wasn’t insane enough so we went further: We removed all Managers… We give all employees 100% control of their time and let them decide what they work on each day.”

permalink 14 Dec 13 8:19 AM · Comments (0) · Tags: Career
Performance Evaluations and Grade Inflation

I recently bought a new car. As I was about to drive off the lot, the salesperson said, “In a few days, you’ll receive an email with a survey to rate my performance today. If you don’t give me a perfect score, it may as well be zero. Say anything you want in the comments, but if you don’t think you can give me all 5’s, let’s talk about it now so I can make it right.” I’ve had similar comments from customer service people at hotels and car rental companies.

How did this happen? When did it become unacceptable to receive anything less than a perfect score?

Making matters worse, the top rating on many of these surveys is, “Exceeded expectations”. If I expect my experience to be problem-free and it is, then the experience met my expectations, it did not exceed them. To exceed my expectations, the employee would have to do something remarkable, above and beyond the norm. It’s unreasonable for a company to expect employees (or for employees to expect themselves) to receive this rating routinely.

When I deliver training, I provide students with a feedback survey. I tell them I don’t mind if they give me less than a perfect score, as long as they explain in the comments why they gave me that score and what I could have done differently to improve it. My goal isn’t to amass a collection of surveys with meaningless perfect scores; it’s to receive honest feedback so that I can (hopefully) improve. I’m sure there’s something about every class that I could have done better; I welcome the opportunity to know what it is.

Update: What prompted this post is that I had my year-end performance review on Friday, and my manager was practically apologetic as she explained that only a small percentage of employees receive a rating of “Exceeds expectations”. Apparently some people are disappointed when they don’t receive the highest rating; they feel that it reflects poorly on their performance. As you may have guessed, I am not one of those people. But then again, I was always satisfied to be a B student. :-)

permalink 14 Dec 13 12:31 AM · Comments (0) · Tags: Career, Rants, Training
Be a Problem-Solver, Not an Order-Taker

This post is talking about software, but the principle applies to any consulting situation, including instructional design:

Just because people ask for something doesn’t mean we should build it… It’s our skill and responsibility as creators and experts to understand and synthesize user feedback into great products, and not slavishly do what our users say, producing one more pointless product after another.

Remember that the next time a client requests “training” focused on delivering information, rather than building skill or changing behavior. As Cathy Moore so eloquently puts it, “Be a problem-solver, not an order-taker!”

permalink 10 Dec 13 5:49 PM · Comments (0) · Tags: Training
Apple CEO Tim Cook on Customer Feedback

This is inspiring: I wonder how many CEOs get hundreds of customer emails every day. I wonder how many of them would consider it a privilege.

It’s interesting to me — and I think this is a privilege for Apple — just like we’re sitting down at this table today, I get e-mails all day long, hundreds, thousands per day from customers who are talking like you and I are talking, almost like I’ve gone over to their home and I am having dinner with them.

They care so deeply about Apple they want to suggest this or that or say, “Hey, I didn’t like this,” or, “I really love this,” or tell me that FaceTime has changed their lives.

I received an e-mail just today where a customer was able to talk to their mother who lives thousands of miles away and is suffering from cancer, and they couldn’t see her any other way.

But the point is they care so much they take the time to say something. It’s not a letter like you might think is written to a CEO. It’s not this formal kind of stuff. It’s like you and I are having a discussion, and we’ve known each other for 20 years, and I want to tell you what I really think. I love it. I don’t know if there’s another company on earth this happens with. It’s just not people from the U.S. These are people from all over the world. I look at it, and I go, “This is a privilege.”

Is there another company in the world where their customers care so much they do this? I don’t think there is. Other companies I’ve worked at, you might get a letter every six months, and it was, you know, “I want my money back,” or something sort of terse. There was no emotion in it. So I think this is really something incredible.

At one of the companies I worked at, not to mention any names, we’d put (new products) in the lobby. We’d get on the employee intercom system and say, “Come look at them,” and nobody came. They didn’t even care.

I’ve talked to many other CEOs who look at me like I have three heads when I talk about getting hundreds or thousands of customer e-mails in a day. It’s a privilege. It’s like you’re sitting at the kitchen table. You’re a part of the family. And we have to continue to honor that.

Read the entire interview here.

permalink  6 Dec 12 3:24 PM · Comments (0) · Tags: Tech
Three Steps to Better E-Learning

Would you like to create e-learning that learners and stakeholders love, and that effects real change within your organization? Here’s how:

  1. Start with a goal.

    If you’re going to spend time developing a course (and ask people to spend time taking it), the training should have a specific, measurable goal. I like Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping process: 

    Cathy Moore's Action Map

    Start with a measurable business goal, then figure out what learners need to do in order to reach it. Identify the minimum information learners need in order to perform the desired behavior and include only that information in the course. If you must provide additional reference material, link to it as an external resource; don’t force-feed it to learners as part of the course. 

    Perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. — Antoine de Saint Exupéry

    Lean, focused training saves your time during development, and ensures that you don’t waste learners’ time: Every moment they spend with your training moves them closer to your goal.

    Here’s another great post on this subject that I wish I had written. If you don’t already read Ethan Edwards’ blog, you should start now.

  2. Make it emotional.

    Quick: Think of your favorite scene from a movie or TV show. Why do you remember that scene? I’ll bet it provoked an emotional reaction — excitement, surprise, laughter, romance — the first time you saw it. People remember (and are moved to action by) experiences that engage their emotions. How can you apply this principle in your training?

    A great way to get people emotionally involved is to tell a story, a realistic scenario that helps learners see how the training relates to them. 

    For example, I began a course on service-oriented architecture (SOA) with a story about Linda, a software developer, and Bill, her manager. Linda wants to use SOA on her current project; she believes the long-term benefits are worth a bit of up-front investment. Bill thinks it’s a nice idea, but there’s not enough time in the schedule to try something new. 

    Bill and Linda

    The conflict between Linda and Bill invites learners to choose a side and helps get them emotionally involved. Try to think of a story with a plot and characters to which your learners can relate.

    For more excellent ideas on creating a memorable message, read Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.

  3. Make it practical.

    If your goal is to teach people how to do something, your course should include interactions that allow them to practice the desired behavior. By “interactions”, I don’t mean a multiple-choice quiz or matching terms with their definitions. Learners must be able to practice what you expect them to do on the job, including the ability to make mistakes and see the consequences of those mistakes. Dr. Michael W. Allen recommends a model that he calls CCAF: Context, Challenge, Activity, Feedback.

    Context is the setting in which the learning takes place. It includes the story you choose to set the scene as well as the visual design of the course, which should be immersive and reflect the learner’s day-to-day work environment as closely as possible.

    Allen Interactions' Security Risks Course

    Challenge refers to creating a desire in the learner to complete the course successfully, a sense that something personal is at stake. Ethan Edwards explains

    When the learner makes forward progress equally, whether an answer is correct or incorrect, he or she learns that it does not really matter what one gives as an answer… If there is no real chance for the learner to fail, then failure or success is a matter of indifference. And if the performance required of the learner seems pointless or irrelevant, there will be little motivation to work toward that end.

    The learner must know that success is possible, but that it’s not necessarily guaranteed without some mental effort.

    Activity is the physical action the learner must perform to achieve success. Ideally, the activity should mirror as closely as possible what the learner will actually do on the job. The goal is to demonstrate mastery of a skill, not simply the recall of information.

    Feedback is the information we communicate to the learner in response to his or her actions. Telling the learner whether he or she completed an activity correctly is just scratching the surface. Instead, you can show the learner the consequences of his or her actions (intrinsic feedback). Or you can give the learner a challenge at the beginning of a lesson, then use feedback after an activity to present the associated content. By tailoring the content to the learner’s needs (as demonstrated through the activity), the instruction takes less time and becomes more relevant, and the learner will be more receptive to it.

    For more information on the CCAF model, download this free e-book from Allen Interactions. (That link requires you to register before you may download the file; there’s also a copy here that you can read online without registering.)

By starting with a specific, measurable goal, engaging the learner’s emotions, and making the training practical and relevant to the learner, you will greatly increase the appeal and effectiveness of your e-learning.

What challenges have you faced in applying these principles? What successes have you enjoyed? Please leave a comment below.

permalink 28 Jun 12 9:30 AM · Comments (0) · Tags: Training
Golden Rules for Managing Engineers

From David Kimbell’s 10 Golden Rules for Managing Engineers:

(1) Refuse to manage. Lead instead.

What [engineers] need is someone who will set them clear goals, give them the necessary tools and training, and protect them from distraction. That’s leadership.

I have not come across many leaders in my career. Lots of managers. Few leaders.

(2) Give them clear direction, then get out of the way.

Too many managers behave as if they are indispensable. That’s often because they fear they might not be.

Engineers need to know what’s expected of them, and what their priorities are to be. Then (unless he/she is a newbie), leave them to it. Remain accessible, but out of the way.

Amen! The rest of the list is good, too, but those are my favorites.

permalink 13 Jun 12 12:11 PM · Comments (0) · Tags: Career
Agile Instructional Design

I’ve been working on a post about how software development has moved away from heavy, big-design-up-front methodologies like Waterfall to more agile, iterative processes, and maybe it’s time for instructional design to do the same: Abandon the dated and cumbersome ADDIE model for something that allows us to produce training more rapidly and incorporate feedback from actual learners.

Then today Nicole Legault tweeted about this: Instructional Design and Rapid Prototyping: Rising from the Ashes of ADDIE. So, um, go read that.

I will add, however, that I love this point from Justin Searls’ presentation, The Mythical Team-Month:

Consensus doesn’t scale. Consensus corrects for the team’s needs; feedback corrects for the users’ needs. Sadly, time spent gaining consensus costs you in feeback.

Rather than spend time in meetings talking about training, get something in front of learners as quickly as possible and let them tell you how to improve it.

permalink 12 Jun 12 12:50 PM · Comments (0) · Tags: Training
Blog Changes

As this blog approaches its tenth anniversary, I’ve been considering some changes.

For my first year of blogging, I used Radio Userland, a now-defunct piece of software created by the godfather of blogging, Dave Winer. Userland charged $40/year for Radio; when the time came to renew, I researched the available alternatives and chose Movable Type, which is free for individuals. I’ve used it, more or less happily, ever since.

A few weeks ago, Scott Hanselman tweeted about a new service that lets you create a web site by simply saving text files to Dropbox. That concept appealed to me, particularly since it would simplify blogging from my iPad.

It turns out there are several such services. Scriptogram seems the most flexible, so I created an account and began the process of converting my existing content to Markdown format.

I soon realized, however, that Scriptogram creates URLs like this: The service supports custom domains, so I could do this:, but beyond that I can’t customize the generated URLs. If I migrate this blog to Scriptogram, all the existing URLs will change. Not good.

If I were starting a new blog, I would definitely use Scriptogram. But until I can keep my existing URLs, I’ll leave this blog where it is. I am, however, going to start writing posts in Markdown and saving them in Dropbox; I used Byword and MarkdownPad to compose this one. When it’s time to publish, I’ll paste the text into Movable Type (which supports Markdown); not as seamless as Scriptogram, but it’ll do.

I also plan to change this site’s focus (or, more accurately, give it one): Ten years ago, I was a software developer working on my first major ASP.NET project; I wanted a place to capture what I was learning and share it with others. Since 2005, I’ve been a technical trainer, learning instructional design, facilitation skills, and how to create e-learning that doesn’t suck. Watch for posts on these topics in the coming weeks.

permalink 10 Jun 12 10:00 PM · Comments (0) · Tags: Blogging