New action mapping job aids available

Action mapping job aidNew, prettier job aids for action mapping are now available for free download. They include:

  • Overviews of action mapping
  • The “Will Training Help?” flowchart, new and improved
  • A “Job Aid or Memorization?” mini-flowchart to help your SME see that people don’t need to memorize everything

The job aids are designed to accompany my new book, which is now available on Kindle. The print version will be available in mid-October through Amazon in many countries.

Finally, there are still some seats available in the scenario design course that starts October 4. In four weeks of sessions, you’ll apply action mapping and scenario design to a project from your job.

There are online sessions for time zones in the Americas as well as Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. Check them out!

How to respond to “Make one course for everyone”

“I’ve got a great idea!” says the new employee at Acme Tea Company. “Some people like iced tea. Other people like hot tea. Let’s make everyone happy by selling room-temperature tea!”

The L&D equivalent sounds like this:

  • “Everyone needs to be aware of this, so put a course on the LMS and assign it to all employees.”
  • “Make a course about the new product features for the repair people, help desk, and sales staff.”
  • “Everyone should treat patients with respect, so let’s create a workshop for all staff.”

The result? A bland, room-temperature information dump that everyone quickly forgets. Here’s how to get your client to take a more effective approach.

1. Solve a problem. Don’t just deliver information.

Group of iconic people being subjected to an information dumpOur clients often expect us to install information in people’s heads. Instead, we need to ask the right questions to uncover the problem that the information will supposedly solve.

Take charge of the conversation from the first contact with the client. What problem are they trying to solve? What do they need people to do? Why aren’t people doing it?

You might discover that information alone really would solve the problem. In that case, you probably don’t need a course or workshop. How about some easy-to-use job aids and some motivating messages from leadership?

If the client wants everyone to be “aware,” try these tips.

2. Segment the audience by what they do on the job.

Repair staff need to troubleshoot misbehaving widgets. Sales staff need to match the right widget to the customer’s needs. Giving them both a generic presentation on new widget features will help neither of them.

Consider creating at least one persona to represent each segment. A persona is a fictional but realistic character with a name, age, interests, and everything else that makes a person real. Consider what that person needs as you design solutions.

Does Betty the widget salesperson need to reassure people about the heat generated by the new widget? How can we help her do that?

Will David the widget repair person be tempted to misdiagnose a wobble in the new widget because the feet are designed differently? How can we help him avoid that mistake?

Some people use “persona” to mean “weird-looking avatar character that annoys the heck out of me in elearning” (or maybe that’s my own definition). I’m using “persona” in the marketing and usability sense. I’m not saying, “Put Betty and David in your materials.”

3. Focus on designing activities, not information.

Now that you’ve segmented people by what they need to do, help them practice doing it.

Create unique activities that let people pull the information they need to solve a realistic problem that’s specific to their job. These activities will be different because your segments have different jobs with different challenges.

For example, a technician drawing blood has one type of interaction with a patient, while a nutritionist providing advice has a different type. What does “respect” look like in each case? How can each person practice saying and doing respectful things?

If you’re packaging your activities as one online course, you can have each person choose their job role and send them on different paths. However, a one-shot course is rarely the best solution to a problem. For example, you could consider offering a bank of activities so people can practice on demand, over time — and that’s just one example of many possibilities.

Here’s one fictional example of the activity-first approach that avoids a generic information dump.

The core problem: “Training is knowledge transfer”

Our learners aren’t in school, preparing for a test. They’re in jobs that require them to do things. They often need practice, not just information.

However, many clients (and too often, our bosses and instructional design professors) assume that our job is to install information into people’s heads. We’re supposed to get the information in there and then test to make sure it survived a few minutes in short-term memory.

We can change that perspective by politely but relentlessly turning the conversation to the performance problem that needs to be solved, not the information that people supposedly need. Here’s an interaction that summarizes the action mapping workflow.

Get more tips from my mini-expert system

This interactive tool asks you five questions about your training project and provides custom advice, thanks to the power of variables in Twine.

If you have a performance problem that could be improved with information and advice, you might use Twine or a similar tool to answer the common questions.


Scenario design course starts in October

To apply this approach to a project from your job, consider signing up for my live scenario design course, which starts in October.

5 ways to become an L&D hero

It’s time for New Year’s resolutions! How about this one?

“I vow to become a hero to my learners and clients. I’ll save them from boring information dumps and wasted money. I’ll help them enjoy their jobs and see real-world improvement. I’ll save the world from boring training!”

Office worker opens shirt to reveal Superman logoWithout clear steps, our “Become a hero!” resolution could end up on the same dusty shelf as “Lose weight.” So here are some steps to take you to heroic status. (As always, I’m talking to training designers in the business world, not education.)

1. Redefine your job in your head. Our job is to change what people do, not just what they know. We need to design experiences, not information. Design practice, not a quiz.

2. Redefine your job in the real world. Make clear that your goal is new behavior, not a score on a knowledge test. Posts that might help:

Since many clients think at first that they want a score on a test, you also have to make clear that you’re a problem solver, not an order taker. You might get ideas from these posts:

If you’re a freelancer, take a critical look at your marketing. Is your overall message “I create courses for you,” or is it “I solve your performance problems?” Attracting the right clients makes being a hero a lot easier.

If you’re an employee, does your organization treat you as a developer, or as a consultant? If you’re in the “developer” slot, is there a more consultative role you can move into? If no one is doing any analysis of performance problems(!), can you sneak some analysis into your next project to show how it improves results?

It's not in my job description - yet.

3. Challenge yourself. It’s easy to deliver an order. It’s harder to politely resist a band-aid solution and ask the kinds of questions that could really bring results. Like any superhero, sometimes you’ll have to do uncomfortable things, like change clothes in a phone booth, but you’re saving the world, so it’s worth it.

4. Challenge your audience. You’re supposed to make training “engaging.” But what’s engaging? A presentation followed by “Can you remember what you were told 3 minutes ago?” Or an intriguing problem like the ones you have to solve on the job, but that has optional help and shows you better ways to find solutions?

For more on this, you might check out my scenario design course, and see the posts in the scenarios section of this blog.

5. Celebrate your wins, even the little ones. Did you persuade a client to let you analyze the problem? Did a stakeholder agree to start with a realistic challenge instead of an information dump? Did you talk a client out of adding redundant narration for debunked learning styles? Celebrate!

We’re trying to change a deeply embedded belief that claims our job is to stuff knowledge into brains. Even small wins are steps in the right direction. Celebrate them!

For more motivation, you might like my decidedly non-serious L&D Manifesto.


Scenario design courses open for registration

Get the most from action mapping and design challenging activities in my live, online course. You’ll build skills that will help you create challenging, realistic mini-scenarios and branching scenarios, and you’ll immediately apply what you’re learning to a real project on your job.

Sessions are scheduled for many time zones, including Australia and New Zealand. The course tends to sell out, so you might check it out now so you don’t miss out.

Photo by tom_bullock, Flickr via Compfight cc

Scenario example: Chainsaw training!

What’s the best way to teach people to cut down a tree? Probably the best way isn’t the approach recommended in this scenario. However, the scenario isn’t supposed to be realistic. I wrote it to make a point.

Try the scenario below. Do you agree with my point?

(The scenario is embedded in the blog post. If you’re reading this in email or a feed reader and don’t see a clickable interaction, go to the blog post to play it.)


Photo by Stewart Black cc. Scenario was developed in Twine.

Spoiler alert! Play the scenario before you read on.

If you’re familiar with action mapping, you probably saw what I was trying to do. The best ending to the scenario required you to do some (extremely quick) analysis of why it’s hard to cut down a tree without squashing your house or car.

The analysis asks, “What decisions do people have to make? Why are those decisions tricky? How can we help people practice making the decisions in a safe place?”

Then your design focused on helping people practice the tricky things that would directly support the goal of reduced property damage. You didn’t push information into their heads and then see if they could recognize it on a test.

Of course, it’s important for customers to know the obvious stuff, like how to hold the saw when you’re cutting into a tree. We’d certainly cover that in the videos. Unfortunately, it’s tempting to focus only on that obvious stuff. The result would be “How to Use a Chainsaw” and not what we really need, which is “How to Use a Chainsaw without Destroying Your House.”

I learned to cut down trees the way most people probably should: A more experienced person went into my woods with me. He helped me analyze each tree, set up the winch and rope, plan the cut, and adjust when things began to veer horribly out of control. But if that weren’t possible, I’d look for training that let me practice the decisions in a safe place.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

More scenario examples

I’ve set up a scenario design headquarters on my site. In that section, you’ll find more scenario examples, along with a research summary, a link to all scenario posts, and some tips on using Twine, the free editor I used to create the scenario in this post.

Related posts

For more on letting people learn from their mistakes, you might check out these posts:

Do you work in a course factory? Do you care?

Are you a cog in the course factory, or are you a performance consultant? Where do you or your clients fall on the following spectrum, and where do you want to be?

(Feed readers, there’s a table here! It might appear at the end of the post in your feed reader.)

Course factory

————–

Performance consultancy

My job is to create training. ————– My job is to improve the performance of the organization.
I shouldn’t question the client’s decision to provide training. ————– Since my job is to help the client solve their performance problem, I need to determine if training really is part of the solution and identify what else might help.
The only thing I ever design is training. ————– I might design job aids, create help screens, identify ways to streamline processes, encourage managers to provide stretch assignments, push for better communication tools…
My goal is to transfer knowledge. ————– My goal is to solve a performance problem, and the best way to do that isn’t clear until I analyze the problem. Maybe it has nothing to do with knowledge.
The best way to transfer knowledge is to push information at people so they’re all equally exposed. ————– If information really will help solve the problem, I look for ways to let people pull it when they need it. Training might not be necessary at all.
Training is an event, like a one-time course or workshop. ————– If I decide a practice activity will help, it might be just that — an activity, not a course, delivered in any format, maybe in a live session, maybe as part of a “try it when you want” collection of online challenges, and preferably as part of a series of activities spaced over time.
Once the training has been delivered, I’m done. ————– If the performance measure has improved, I’m happy, but I’m not done. I need to talk to the people affected by the project to find out what’s working and what isn’t.
When I finish one project, I wait for the next request to come in. ————– I notice problems and suggest solutions before someone asks me for help, because I know what my organization is trying to accomplish.

 

Two opposing sides?

Industry gurus have been pointing out for some time that L&D needs to stop being a course factory and become more of a performance consultancy. Sometimes they express their opinions with such zeal that it can feel like they’ve divided us into two irreconcilable groups: We’re either marching onto the bright consulting field waving the flag of the latest workplace learning model, or we’re stubbornly hiding in the basement, cranking out irrelevant courses.

Cranking out the courses in the basement factoryI agree we need to become more of a performance consultancy. In fact, I think some new models of workplace learning don’t go far enough, at least as I understand them. They correctly and importantly remind us that people learn in a million ways, regardless of our “help.” They give less attention to making sure that learning will actually solve the problem.

If we’re going to be performance consultants, we need to identify all barriers to performance. We can’t assume that knowledge and skills will help.

I also don’t think we’re divided into two opposing groups. Instead, I see a spectrum.

I’ve talked to many people who want to leave the course factory behind but have trouble seeing how they could actually do it. Some have to fight their organization to take just one step because their job title is literally “Course Producer.” To climb out of the basement, they have to drag the dead weight of their department with them.

In the title of this post, I asked, “Do you care?” Most people I’ve heard from care. They know that cranking out courses on demand doesn’t meet the real needs of the organization. They just need help finding a way out of the basement.

For a lot more about why we need to move toward performance consulting, see The Business of Corporate Learning by Shlomo Ben-Hur. Jane Hart has a recent series of blog posts on what she sees as a stark division in L&D, starting with this post. In this interview, Donald Taylor sees the L&D world as divided not into two sides but four regions on a quadrant.

Looking for feedback on my book

If you’ve read this far, you might be interested in giving me feedback on my upcoming book. Map it: The hands-on guide to strategic training design offers a step-by-step process to help training designers leave boring courses behind and instead find the best solutions to performance problems. It’s action mapping all grown up. I’m looking for 30 people to read a PDF version and complete a survey about it, so I can make the book as useful as possible.

Map It helps you find non-training solutions to problems. And when training is part of the solution, it helps you design challenging practice activities that can be provided in any format, not just in courses or training events. It shows you one way to start climbing out of the basement and to bring your client or boss with you.

I’ve been using it with my scenario design courses and plan to publish it in early 2016.

I’m looking for a cross-section of my intended audience to be beta readers. If you’re interested in participating, please fill out this quick demographic survey. From the responses, I’ll pick 30 people to receive a PDF version of the book. The first survey requires your email address so I can send you the book if you’re chosen; the second feedback survey will be anonymous.

If you just want to know when the book is published, sign up for the announcement list. You’ll get an email when the book is available, which should be in early 2016.

Finally, before we go back to our places on the course assembly line, let us sing in solidarity with our fellow workers who are hauling out the data on the Xerox line.

Factory worker photo by Howard R. Hollem. Public domain; US Library of Congress.

How to respond to learning-style believers

“What do you mean, I shouldn’t accommodate people’s learning styles? You can’t tell me people don’t learn differently! I see it in the classroom all the time!”

Maybe you’ve heard that from a classroom presenter (I have). Or maybe you’ve heard this from a client:

“Be sure to include narration for the audio learners! And add lots of drag-and-drops for the kinesthetic people.”

The rare and neglected accordion learnerLearning styles have been popularized by well-intentioned people, including possibly your professor of instructional design. However, the claim that we have to adapt our design to accommodate different learning styles has been repeatedly debunked by research.

Then why do people cling to the belief? Let’s look at one reason why learning styles are so appealing and how we can respond to the believers on our team.

First, the research

These resources link to or summarize research that debunks learning styles:

Debunk carefully — morals are at stake!

The myths that put people into special categories, such “visual learners” or “digital natives,” have a powerful emotional appeal. As a result, questioning them can backfire. I’ve certainly received some impassioned responses, and I know that some of you have, too.

In Urban Myths about Learning and Education, the authors suggest that these myths could be a type of moral panic. In a moral panic, believers claim that there are stark differences between groups of people and that only moral people care about these differences.

Emotions can run high thanks to the believer’s moral commitment. For example, imagine that I believe in learning styles and I’m a member of a team on an elearning project. I notice that no one is planning any narration, so I say earnestly, “Don’t forget the auditory learners!” Someone else says, “Oh, that’s all been debunked.”

I’ve never heard that before. How might I respond?

“Are they saying I’m an idiot?” I think. “I’m not! I care about the learners! The team is just finding excuses to take shortcuts. They don’t care about the learners like I do!” So I fight back, maybe by debating learning styles or just resisting others’ ideas.

This is the “worldview backfire effect,” according to the authors of The Debunking Handbook, available for free from SkepticalScience.com.

How can we respond?

One way to avoid the backfire effect could be to frame your disagreement in a way that doesn’t threaten the believer’s moral position. That way, you can keep their emotions from rising and clouding their thinking.

For example, you might first acknowledge the believer’s compassion and then offer alternatives that meet even more important needs, so agreeing with you won’t harm their position as someone who cares about the learners.

You can also offer an alternative explanation for the situation that the myth is intended to explain, or suggest that the people who originally promoted the myth did so for their own profit, both techniques recommended by research cited in The Debunking Handbook.

For example, if you have a learning-style believer who wants redundant elearning narration “for the auditory learners,” you might say the following:

“That’s an important point. We need to consider how people’s preferences might affect their learning.”

  • This acknowledges the believer’s compassion while reframing learning styles as preferences.

“For example, research shows that people learn best when they can control the pacing, which is actually hard to do if we use a narrator for everything. So if we added a narrator for the subset of people who prefer narration, we’d take away the control over pacing that everyone needs. If we made the narration optional, we’d still have to spend a lot of the budget on it, which reduces our ability to use techniques that everyone needs.”

  • We’re suggesting that the believer’s compassion can be extended to even more people by letting go of the focus on one group.

“Unfortunately, much of the research that seems to support learning styles was done by people who sell the learning style inventories or otherwise profit from them. Independent research doesn’t support the idea of changing our approach to accommodate learning styles, but it does say we should give everyone lots of practice over time. Since there’s more research support for spaced practice, it would be most effective to use our budget to design more practice for everyone instead of hiring a narrator for a few.”

  • We suggest that the myth was created by someone for their own purposes, sucking all the compassion out of it, and then build up the believer again by giving them a different way to show their compassion for the learners. Of course, the alternative approach could be anything supported by research, not just spaced practice.

I’m saying that all learners are exactly the same. Not.

Some learning-style believers say that science fans like me just want to turn learners into robots, denying their individuality.

I say that the best way to honor people’s individuality isn’t to shove them into simplistic categories so we can pour information into them, but to provide them with the respectful support they need to drive their own learning, at their pace. And if we use techniques that independent studies show actually work, we’re respecting learners’ time and showing true compassion for their needs.

I’ve focused here on just the “moral panic” appeal of learning styles. I think they’re appealing for other reasons as well, including:

  • They’re fun like a Facebook quiz is fun. “I’m a visual learner!” Or maybe you’re the rare and neglected nasal learner.
  • They make intuitive sense. Of course we all have different strengths and learning preferences. What’s not supported is the claim that we need to adjust instruction to match learning styles.
  • It’s currently popular to put people into categories of all types, so learning styles fit into a larger trend — says I, the high-D INTJ “overachieving” myopic height-advantaged asparagus avoider and bad singer.
  • They’re easy. Simple rules like “Add pictures for the visual learner” are easy to apply. It’s “hard” to use more effective design approaches, such as designing realistic practice activities or helping learners gauge their own progress.
  • A belief in learning styles encourages people to use a wider variety of media in their instruction, which when done well is a good thing. However, pointing out the invalidity of learning styles doesn’t mean, “All instruction must be text!” That’s a false alternative. The content and nature of the task should determine the media. The authors of Make It Stick sum it up this way: “When instructional style matches the nature of the content, all learners learn better, regardless of their differing preferences for how the material is taught.”
  • Learning styles are still being taught by some instructional design programs.

What has been your experience? Why do you think learning styles are still popular? What works for you when you’re faced with a colleague or client who wants to accommodate learning styles? Let us know in the comments.

Get your free 23-page ebook: Training Designer's Guide to Saving the World

Write a strong goal: Sell it to Scrooge

A pile of Euro coinsWhen a client says, “My team needs training,” they might not realize it yet, but they have a bigger goal in mind. That goal is the real reason the project has to happen.

Unfortunately, it’s common to develop training with the wrong type of goal. Below are some typical goals. They all have a big blind spot. What are they missing?

  • Salespeople will know all the product features.
  • Managers will handle difficult conversations better.
  • Everyone will use the new software.
  • People will be aware of the dangers of the internet.
  • Leaders will help people adjust to big changes.

If you had $40,000 and someone asked you to spend that money on any of the above goals, what would you say?

Here’s what I’d say: “What will I get in return?”

A business goal is the “What’s in it for me?” for the organization. It justifies the existence of the project in business terms. None of the goals above clearly shows what’s in it for the organization.

Let’s see how it works with the first goal, “Salespeople will know all the product features.”

Sell it to Scrooge

Imagine that I’m a C-level type in a widget company and I’m sitting behind a tidy pile of $40,000.

A training person, let’s call him Bob, comes to me and says, “Give me that $40k, and in return, salespeople will know all the product features.”

“What, can’t they read the product brochure?” I say, wrapping my arms around the money.

“Well, yes, but they’re not selling our widgets as well as they could,” Bob says. “Our mystery shoppers say that the salespeople just sell the micro widget. They ignore the mega and mongo widgets even when they’re the best widgets for the customer. We have a reputation as cheap widget-pushers.”

“So tell them to sell more mega and mongo widgets,” I say.

“But we don’t want them to sell the mega or mongo if it’s the wrong widget for the customer,” Bob says. “That goes against our mission and will hurt our brand.”

“You want this money,” I say, “so you can help salespeople identify the best widget for the customer?”

“Yes, that’s it,” Bob says. “I guess just knowing the features isn’t enough. They have to develop the skills to identify the customer’s needs and then match the features to those needs.”

“And then what will happen?” I say. “How will I get my $40k back?”

“Sales of mega and mongo widgets will go up,” Bob says. “Since we make more profit from those than from the micro widgets, we’ll make more money.”

“And…?” I say in my most annoying tone, still gripping the money.

“And our reputation will improve, helping our brand,” Bob says. “Overall sales could go up and we could gain market share, because we’ll become the widget company that really listens. Everyone else just pushes widgets.”

“All right,” I say, reluctantly peeling $20k off the pile. “Here’s some money. Let’s see if you can show a 5% increase in mega and mongo widget sales by fourth quarter. If so, we’ll use the rest of the money to expand what you’re doing and see if we can gain market share.”

What changed during the conversation?

Bob’s goal started as this:

  • Salespeople will know all the product features

It ended as this:

  • Mega and mongo widget sales will increase 5% by Q4 as salespeople identify the best widget for each customer

Bob now has a way to measure the success of his project, at least in the short term, and it’s a measure that benefits the business as a whole. His new goal justifies the expense of the project.

Bob’s new goal also shows everyone involved in the project that he’s serious and is going to measure results. It shows that “training people” like Bob play vital roles in the success of the organization.

Imagine the training that results

A good business goal helps you sell your project to Scrooges like me, but it also has a profound effect on the type of training you develop.

Bob’s original goal was “Salespeople will know all the product features.” What would have happened if I were out of the office and someone gave Bob all the money without challenging his goal? What kind of training would he create?

Bob’s revised goal aims to increase sales of specific products by having salespeople identify the best widget for each customer. How did the new goal change Bob’s approach to his design?

See what happens next

I’ve continued the story on a separate page to keep this post short.

If this seems like something out of a book, that’s because it is. I’m writing a book on action mapping, and it should be available in the next couple of months. I’ll be sure to announce it in the blog.


Scenario design course starts soon

My four-week, online scenario design class starts on April 21. I’ve added a second session scheduled for the Americas because the first is nearly full. Find out more.

Photo: aditza121 via Compfight cc

Get your free 23-page ebook: Training Designer's Guide to Saving the World

How to be a learning mythbuster

“Wait, we can’t design the training that way, because Zeus will rain down fire as punishment!”

You might not hear that particular myth, but I’ll bet you’ve heard many others. Here are the most popular myths I’ve heard from learning designers and their clients.

Chart showing high percentage of people believing myths about learning

Oh, those numbers in the chart? They’re just an estimate based on my experience. They’re not real.

They’re like the numbers that someone tacked onto a graphic created by Edgar Dale, magically turning it into a “scientific” and unfortunately misleading “truth” about how much we remember, as Will Thalheimer thoroughly shows.

Putting science-y numbers on concepts is just one part of a larger problem we face: We let unfounded beliefs influence us.

It’s a cultural problem

Why do myths flourish in our supposedly science-based profession?

I like to use a flowchart to analyze performance problems. If we were to use the flowchart to answer “Why do training designers make decisions based on myths?” I think we’d find that the main problem is an environmental one:

We work in organizations that believe harmful myths. We’re pressured to work as if the myths are true, and we can’t or don’t take the time we need to keep our knowledge up to date and combat the myths.

Stand up to the client

We need to change this cultural problem, and one of the first steps is to politely stand up to the client who believes in the impending punishment of Zeus. “I understand your concern,” we might say. “Luckily, research shows that Zeus doesn’t actually exist and has no opinion about our training.” We back this up with a link to an easy-to-read summary of research showing the non-existence of Zeus.

For example, let’s say we have a client who believes in learning styles.

“Learning styles are real,” they say, “and we must design the training to accommodate them.” This has been debunked repeatedly yet stubbornly lives on. It’s one of the most common excuses for inflicting slow narration on elearning users. What can help us debunk this?

  • This PopSci article is a quick, entertaining read and could be a good one to send to the client.
  • Learning styles: Worth our time? links to two major debunking studies and highlights techniques that work better. It might appeal more to learning geeks.
  • Here’s an excellent roundup of opinions from L&D luminaries, from Guy Wallace. It might help convince people who need to see that many experts argue against learning styles.

It’s also helpful to dip into research compilations in our spare moments. For example, the extensive PDF report Learning to Think, Learning to Learn organizes research into specific, plain-English recommendations that are easy to read in short bursts. It’s aimed at people who teach remedial courses but applies to all types of adult learning design.

For research specific to elearning, I always recommend e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer.

Expose myths to the sun

Another way to weaken myths is to clearly state them, to bring them into the light and ask stakeholders, “Is this really true?”

For example, here are some beliefs that affect our ability to design effective training. What would happen if we had our stakeholders stop and consider whether they’re actually true?

  • If there’s a performance problem, training must be the solution.
  • Training is a one-time event or course.
  • Training means putting information into people’s heads.
  • Our job is to make this information easy to understand and remember.
  • We should first tell people what they need to know, and then give them an activity so they can check their knowledge.
  • We shouldn’t let learners make mistakes because that would demoralize them and they’ll only remember the mistakes.
  • We shouldn’t let people skip stuff they already know because they probably don’t really know it.
  • We should measure learning with an assessment right after the training.
  • If we’re designing elearning, it should look like a slide show. No one will learn from a normal web page with scrolling.
  • If we’re designing elearning, we should have a narrator talk through the slides because no one will read.

I could go on (and on!) but you get the idea. A lot of assumptions drive what we do, and we need to clearly identify and question them before they steer us in the wrong direction.

What are the most damaging or stubborn myths that you’ve seen? Have you been able to fight them effectively? Let us know in the comments!


Jan. 28, London: I’ll be giving a talk on writing effective scenario questions at the Learning Technologies conference.

I’m hard at work on a self-paced course on scenario design. Life intervened and delayed my work for awhile, but the material will be available early this year. You can sign up to be notified when the course is ready.

Get your free 23-page ebook: Training Designer's Guide to Saving the World

3 ways to save gobs of time when designing training

Everyone wants it yesterday. So how can we deliver on time? Here are three possibly bizarre ideas.

1. Don’t design training

This hamster would like you to read the policy.Does the client just want everyone to be “aware” of the hamster sharing policy? If so, your best bet might be to send everyone a link to the policy with the message, “Read this policy, and share hamsters according to its rules.”

If you have the marketing department send the email, they can track how many people opened it and clicked the link to the policy. If they know what they’re doing, they can even tell you who clicked the link and who didn’t, and who read all three pages of the policy and who wandered off after page 1.

In fact, the marketing department can help you write an email that will make people want to read the hamster-sharing policy. They’re experts in this stuff.

2. Design super-targeted training

Most people who say “My team needs training” are making a ton of assumptions. They jump to conclusions about the problem (“They need to understand!”) and the solution (“They need training!”).

If you let their assumptions drive what you do, you’ll waste time creating more training than is useful or effective.

Your secret goal is to find non-training solutions to the problem. To do that, you invite the client to a quick needs analysis discussion, which you’ll disguise as a meeting to “help me understand the problem.”

Then you’ll run this type of kickoff meeting, walking your client through the first few steps of action mapping.

The meeting will help your client see how changes to tools, new job aids, and other non-training interventions can solve the problem.

If still you end up designing training, it will probably be shorter and more targeted.

3. Focus on challenge, not bling

In elearning we’re tempted to make up for the lack of human contact with an avalanche of irrelevant stock photos, narration, and flying bullet points.

I harp on this constantly, but I’ll say it again: An intriguing, challenging activity often works perfectly well as text. In fact, once you start adding media, you can actually damage an activity, as participants in my upcoming scenario design workshops will see.

Think text can’t hack it? Learn some handy phrases in the imaginary language Zeko in an activity that relies 99% on text. Or see if you can guide the AutoLoon L&D department to the best solution to their performance problem, undistracted by cheesy stock photos or narration.

I can already hear people saying, “But what about learning styles?!” to which I say, “Learning styles are bunk.”

Wind turbine breakaway view

An actually useful image

Obviously in many situations more time-consuming media like video, animation, and audio are absolutely necessary. Try understanding how a wind turbine generates electricity without seeing at least a breakaway illustration of its innards. Even better, the right image can eliminate the need for text.

But what I see far more often is pointless, time-wasting bling applied to a boring presentation.

If we’re expected to produce “content,” we have a choice:

  • We could spend a couple of hours writing challenging, bling-free decision-making activities that help people learn through experience, or
  • We could build a bunch of slides to present the content, and then spend several more hours searching for non-gag-inducing stock photos to add “eye candy,” creating slick transitions to “keep the learner’s interest,” recording unnecessary narration because we can’t expect people to read, and fussing interminably with the timeline to make the narration track properly with the flying bullet points.

Unfortunately, our employers often expect bling. One way to win them over to a more powerful but less bling-infested approach is to show them several examples of challenging, thought-provoking materials designed the way we think would work best.

What do you think? What has helped you create powerful training in a short time? Let us know in the comments.


Design challenging scenarios that your learners love with my workshops this September and October in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Sydney. The first workshop is on Sept. 19 and spaces are limited, so check out the details and make your plans!

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How to kick off a project and avoid an info dump

Course factory workerDo you feel like you’re an assembly line worker in a course factory, expected to crank out training on demand?

Break free of the assembly line with a strong kickoff meeting that puts you in charge of the design. Here are some ideas on how to start a project in a way that will avoid an information dump and win the happy obedience of your stakeholders.

We’ll go into detail and practice these techniques (and more!) in the workshop I’m giving in London on June 6.

What’s the first step?

The next time someone drops a pile of PowerPoints in your in box and requests “a course,” respond with a request for a meeting “to make sure I understand what you need.” Two hours is usually enough.

Who should be included in the meeting?

The minimum participants are you (the designer), the person who asked for the training (the “client”), and one or preferably two subject matter experts (SMEs) who are familiar with how the job is currently done.

Depending on the situation, you might also want to include someone who recently learned to do what’s about to be trained and any stakeholder who could veto the project.

What’s the format?

I recommend you use action mapping, so a whiteboard or a laptop with mind-mapping software and a projector will be helpful. I’ve done these meetings remotely, with a shared screen on a webinar platform, but in person I’d prefer a whiteboard and sticky notes.

What’s the goal for the meeting?

Your secret goal for the meeting is to confirm that training really should be part of the solution, and if so, to avoid creating an information dump.

The reason you give to the participants is something like, “To design the most effective training, I need to understand the problem really well.” Put yourself in the role of the eager yet ignorant outsider and don’t directly challenge the client’s assumption that a course is the solution.

How do I start the meeting?

Give a very quick overview of the process, maybe saying something like the following.

  • We’ll use a quick process that helps me understand in detail what you need people to do, so I can design relevant and challenging activities.
  • We’ll start by stating a measurable goal so we’ll know when the training has worked.
  • Then we’ll specify what exactly people need to do to reach that goal and why they’re not doing it, so we can find the best way to change their behavior.
  • The result will be interesting, relevant training that will clearly contribute to the organization’s goals [if possible, add or suggest “and make us look good”].

It might be best not to mention the content at all beyond saying that you’ve reviewed what you’ve been given and need to understand the situation better before you can start designing the “course.”

Then what?

With all the meeting participants, follow the first steps of action mapping, which have been expanded a bit in the last year.

  • Identify a goal that captures in a measurable way why the training is important to the organization (“Improve employee retention 15% by Q2 of next year,” not “Respect diversity”).
  • Expand the goal to identify the audience and give a general idea of what they’ll be doing (“Employee retention will improve 15% by Q2 of next year as mid-level managers follow the new policy on diversity”).
  • Identify specifically and concretely each action that members of the audience need to take to reach the goal (e.g., “Avoid assigning minority employees only to minority clients,” not “Be color-blind”).
  • Prioritize the actions — identify the most egregious problems.
  • Use the flowchart to identify why each important action isn’t always performed correctly, and gently resist stakeholders’ attempts to blame everything on a lack of knowledge.

Be sure to go through the flowchart

Last year I added a flowchart that can dramatically change how stakeholders view the problem and its solution. The more specifically you apply the flowchart, the better your results.

For example, don’t say, “So why do you think managers aren’t respecting diversity?” Instead, focus on each individual action, for example, “Why aren’t managers disciplining people for making offensive jokes?”

If stakeholders blame a problem solely on a lack of knowledge, gently push back. For example: “Okay, you’re saying managers just don’t know that they should discipline people for making offensive jokes. I’m wondering if there’s something more complex here, like maybe the managers know they’re supposed to discipline people but aren’t comfortable providing the discipline. Do you think that might be happening?”

The stakeholders will likely agree and might propose ways to solve that problem. If they don’t come up with their own solutions, you might suggest one, again posing it as a question: “Do you think it could help to give them some sample wording to use for typical situations and let them practice?”

Let the stakeholders see the best solution for themselves

Questions are far more persuasive than advice. Keep asking questions until the client or SME sees for themselves that an info-dumping “course” isn’t the best solution. Let them see how job aids or a change in tools could solve the problem without training, and let them notice on their own that a lot of the content they provided isn’t necessary.

You’re saying we can do all this in just two hours?!

You can get a very good head start in just two hours. I can usually get through setting the goal, identifying the most problematic actions, and identifying why those actions aren’t being performed correctly.

You may need to work a bit after the meeting with a SME to finish analyzing the problem. However, brainstorming activities and identifying which content to include aren’t part of the kickoff –they’re your job.

You might want to include a SME later when brainstorming activities, but make sure to keep tight control so the activities are realistic and challenging and the content is as minimal as it can get.

How can I justify the time required?

If you get resistance to the idea of a two-hour meeting, point out that it will likely result in much more concise, efficient training.

For example, a course that the client expected would require four hours for the 1,200 learners to complete might be reduced to some powerful job aids and one hour of very targeted activities. This saves three hours x 1,200 learners or 3,600 hours, thanks to the two hours invested in the kickoff meeting.

Practice with this scenario!

Try this branching scenario to practice running an action mapping kickoff. Can you win the client while avoiding an information dump?


London workshop on June 6

Join me and Norman Lamont in London on June 6 for the one-day, hands-on workshop “Training design for business results.” You’ll get in-depth practice applying these skills and many more to one of your projects. Learn more about the workshop.

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