Confessions of an accidental instructional designer

Monica vs. Phoebe

Imagine two teams: The first (“Team Monica”) begins a project with a kickoff meeting, followed by meetings with stakeholders and subject-matter experts, and a recurring weekly meeting to discuss progress. The team creates various artifacts along the way: a project plan, process and procedure documents, wireframes and prototypes. Finally, after months of discussion and dozens (or hundreds) of pages of documentation, the team delivers its final product. Hopefully, it accomplishes its goals and satisfies stakeholders.

The other team (“Team Phoebe”) has an initial meeting to assign deliverables to each individual, then gets to work. With fewer meetings and less process, they are able to deliver much more quickly (weeks instead of months); with less up-front planning, however, there is some duplication of effort and inconsistency among deliverables.

Which team would you say is more effective?

If the teams are building something ephemeral (software, documentation, training content, etc.), as opposed to, say, a skyscraper, then count me squarely on Team Phoebe. Though its output may be less consistent, the team produces results much more quickly. Team Phoebe can produce a second iteration that incorporates feedback from actual users in less than time than it takes Team Monica to release version 1.0 (which will itself likely require revision; to paraphrase Helmuth von Moltke, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”)

None of this is new, of course: In software development circles, there is decades-old tension between proponents of Waterfall and Agile methodologies; instructional designers have begun moving away from process-heavy ADDIE toward more iterative, learner-centered techniques. But the debate is far from settled; somehow I keep finding myself the lone Phoebe on a team of Monicas.

I recently came across this presentation by Justin Searls that resonates with me. The whole thing is good, but I especially enjoy the section in praise of small teams beginning around slide 65. Some highlights:

Consensus corrects for the team’s needs; feedback corrects for the users’ needs. Sadly, time spent gaining consensus costs you in feedback, because consensus and feedback compete for the same resources.

A feedback loop

“How can we build something this big with a small team?” is exactly the wrong question. [We should be asking,] “How can we build something this small and start failing or succeeding?” If Small Thing™ is wildly successful, then the team can grow organically; if Small Thing™ is a spectacular failure, then at least it was a small thing.

How do you find a Small Thing? Simplify the idea so much that one person can build it.

That’s my dream: to be part of a team that empowers individuals to create Small Things without a lot of up-front process, gets them into the wild as quickly as possible, and incorporates user feedback to improve them over time. Who’s with me?

How to Be an Effective Trainer

Recently, a colleague of mine started a new job. For the past several years, she had been a corporate learning and development manager; now, for the first time, she would be responsible for training IT people. She asked me if I could recommend any publications or other resources devoted to IT training. Here’s how I replied:

Hi, Mary: Congratulations on the new job! It sounds interesting and challenging.

I am not aware of any resources (publications, blogs, etc.) specifically about IT training. The principles of effective training are the same for IT as they are for any other field:

  • Focus on the learner. Make the training relevant and practical: What should the learner be able to do (not know) after attending the training?

  • Avoid information dumps. If the information is available in written form (documentation, etc.), there’s no need to present it verbally. Instead, the training should focus on practice: tasks the learner will need to perform back on the job, practice finding information in the documentation, etc.

  • Look for alternatives to instructor-led training. This is especially important if you’re a one-person show and you need to scale: The fastest way to develop a class is to not develop it; a document, screencast, or job aid may be sufficient. You can typically create these much more quickly than an instructor-led class, and once created, they can be used and re-used without requiring any more of your time.

I have found the following resources valuable in learning these principles and selling them to stakeholders:

  •, especially her posts about Action Mapping and using scenarios.

  • This blog is mostly about e-learning, but I like their ideas about moving on from ADDIE, and their Context, Challenge, Activity, Feedback (CCAF) method to keep training focused on the learner.

What advice would you give my friend?

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.

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!


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.”

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 5s, 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?

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. ☺

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!”

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.

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.

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.