12 cool ways to use scenarios

Desperate woman wants to know what happens next in scenarioDecision-making scenarios aren’t just for elearning. Here are 12 ideas for other ways you can use branched scenarios to help people practice solving problems.

First, some vocabulary. Each “decision point” in a branching scenario contains the following:

  • The result of the previous decision, such as, “The forklift continues to speed toward the plate glass window.”
  • The stem and options for a new decision, such as, “What should you do?” followed by three or four actions.

Face-to-face training

One of the great benefits of a challenging branched scenario is that it provokes discussion. No more glassy-eyed stares! Some ideas:

  1. Go through an online scenario together: Project the scenario on a screen and as a group decide what option to take at each point.
  2. Act it out: Assign roles in the story and have participants read and act their lines once the group has decided what they should do.
  3. Go through the scenario in small groups: Divide participants into groups of four or so. Have them work through the scenario as a group, then report back to the larger group why they think they got the result they did.
  4. Require someone to defend each option: To bring the discussion to a deeper level, assign each option to a participant: “Bob, you’ll argue for option B every time, whether you agree with it or not. Give it your best shot!” You can do this in large or small groups. If you have four options at each decision point, you might create groups of four and, before they start the scenario, have each person choose an option to always defend.
  5. Ask the group to improve the scenario. Ideally, you tested an earlier version of the scenario on a sample of your audience and improved it based on their suggestions. Now do it again, but as a learning exercise. You could ask what options participants wanted to have but didn’t, how the plot could be made more realistic, and how failure and success should be measured.
  6. Have groups design their own scenarios. After going through and discussing a scenario you wrote, form small groups and have them each design a branching scenario for their colleagues. You might offer a list of story ideas for them to choose from, each offering the opportunity to closely examine the complex decisions that happen on the job. The design project should probably take place over a couple of weeks rather than in one intensive session, and each group’s deliverable could be a simple, text-only PowerPoint or Twine scenario that’s run at another gathering of the full group. You’ll need to win the participation of managers and subject matter experts, but considering how deeply we have to examine every decision to write a good scenario, this exercise could be really powerful.
Sample from a paper-based branching scenario

A branching scenario can be as simple as a printout, with one decision point on each page.
This low-tech scenario inspired intense discussion in a class at West Point.

Email and mobile

Keep your audience engaged by feeding them one scene a day. It’s an email soap opera!

  1. Send an email episode each day to participants showing the results of their last decision and presenting them with another decision in the story. Have them click an HTML link in the email to register their choice — and make them wait until the next day to see how it turns out. You could set this up with an email auto-responder, which your marketing staff should be familiar with, although the branching could be more complex than they’re used to. The email could be plain text or use HTML and images.
  2. Use text messages to deliver one decision point a day to a mobile audience. Participants can make their choice by sending the appropriate code from their phone. Entire novels have been delivered through text message!
  3. Encourage discussion throughout the run of the soap opera. For example, you could set up a discussion forum, assign some people to add posts to keep it lively, and include links to it in the emails or text messages.
  4. Have the scenario play out in real time: If you want people to practice making decisions in a process that plays out over weeks, and the lapse of time is important, you could insert realistic delays between the decision points. You could send emails from scenario characters or other messages that provide the same kind of information that people would receive if this were a real situation, or remind them to perform the same monitoring that they would need to do in real life so they can make a good decision at the next point.

Audio and video

Are podcasts popular in your organization? Are you allowed to use YouTube? Go for it! You might also set up a discussion forum as described above or otherwise encourage people to talk about the scenario as it unfolds.

  1. Record an audio file of each decision point and its options. When participants click a link to choose an option, they receive the file for the next decision point, either immediately or after a realistic lapse of time. You might use participants’ colleagues as actors in the scenario to increase its appeal.
  2. Create a branched video story: Create a separate video for each decision point, and then use YouTube’s annotations feature to link to each option at the end of the video. Here’s an example. If you can’t use YouTube, this tool designed for marketers might work for you.

Make it controversial, and don’t forget the debrief!

One of the strengths of scenarios is that they inspire discussion. Encourage that discussion by intentionally making your scenario not only challenging but also a little controversial, such as by failing to include a popular option or by making a common mistake so appealing that a lot of people fall for it.

Finally, I don’t recommend using scenarios alone, no matter what setting you put them in. Learners need a debrief, some structured way to discuss, draw conclusions, build a model, and identify how they’re going to change what they do.

What did I miss? What’s another way to use scenarios to get people thinking and talking? Let us know in the comments!

Scenario design workshop open for registration

Become a scenario design master! Starting Oct. 15, I’m offering Scenario design: In-depth and hands-on, a four-session online course. We’ll meet for 90 minutes starting at 1 PM US Eastern time on Oct. 15, 17, 22, and 24. Please see this page for details and registration.

Australia workshops open for registration

  • Nov. 13, Sydney: Training design master class for training managers at the Learning@Work conference
  • Nov. 26, Melbourne: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet
  • Nov. 29, Sydney: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet

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

My Current Thoughts on the Classroom

One of my managers asked about the value of classroom training.

The conversation then promptly veered from that topic.  Quite honestly – it is something that probably requires more than 30 seconds of conversation.

So this gives me an opportunity to revisit some of my thinking on the value and purpose of the classroom training model.
The problems I see:

- Classroom training is not scalable by distance, time or human resources – especially when we are staring at a few projects that will require us to provide training and support for 30,000 including a new China campus.  Even if that was part of our strategy – we won’t have the resources (ie people) in place in time for us to do that + perform all of the other tasks already on our plate that won’t be (and shouldn’t be) removed.  And what about the future?

- People say they want classroom training, then don’t bother to show up, then complain that we can’t do training on their schedule or when they need it.  One of the other managers picked up on this right away.

- There is a level of fear for many adult students as soon as they step into a classroom.  Mostly from negative early experience.  That environment kicks up a lot of stuff for a lot of people.  Highly educated people with multiple degrees forget how to read.  A large chunk of my job is fear mitigation.  The classroom environment – with its chairs and industrial strength walls and often orderly seating arrangements focused on the “front” doesn’t help.

- Our IT organization is moving to a new development model where they are purposefully sending unfinished products out into the wild.  The developers are setting the proper expectation that they are doing this to get feedback and quickly implement changes that will make the product more useful.  As a result  – training has zero development time and a dizzying evaluation cycle. Our current models don’t adapt to that.

Some of us have made a career living the trainers nightmare.  Not so sure that is something I want to inflict on my peers. Classroom training (particularly for the nervous) works LOTS better when the product is complete (or really close to it).

- I have learned that retention is minimal with single events.  And research has proven that out.   Some of our more pro-active students will attend the same class multiple times. I fear that this is a waste of their time. This is why almost all of the training I have designed in the past has had the sole objective of finding help when you need it.  The other stuff (navigate the system, perform x task) is secondary.  It’s nice if they remember the secondary – but very few ever do.

Classroom training definitely has its place:
- During an implementation as an option for education.  We want people to be comfortable – and if they are comfortable in a classroom, then  they should be given the opportunity of the classroom.

- When the discussion is needed (IT example) “How do we fit this tool into our processes?”  Or “What improvements do we need to make to our process?”  Ideally – the end-users wouldn’t need to ask these questions at all because they would have chosen the tool and adapted their processes to solve the problem the tool is supposed to solve.  But I don’t live in an ideal world.

- When the discussion is needed (soft-skills example) – One of the most effective trainings I delivered was Magic classroom customer service training.  Lots of discussion, interactivity, peer coaching and mentoring designed in the class. (I still wish I retained the recording of one mock phone call). The other thing that made that particular effort useful was higher management support and consistent, daily feedback after the training.  This was also a manageable audience (about 200 people across Maryland) for the resources we had available (me + 1 other) and it was done as it could be scheduled for each site on their time

So do I teach them to fish?  Or do I give them the fish?
Do I meet expectations?  Or give them what they actually need when they have to perform?
Sage on the stage? Guide on the side? Give them access to REAL expertise in the context they are in?

I’m thinking that if we are going to legitimately have a learning environment for staff, one where the staff is constantly learning, one where the staff feels EMPOWERED to reach out and gain expertise  – classroom training is only one set of tools in the toolbox – like a crescent wrench set.

You can use the crescent wrench like a hammer, but it is not as good as a hammer.
You can punt if you have the wrong size crescent wrench, with some difficulty.
But to build a house – you need more than just one type of tool.

Growth Opportunities

This is the way I currently visualize and categorize the activities around our roadmap.
This post discusses the blue Content box in the middle.  The one our team has “control” over.
We’ve had a reorg – so I spent part of last week updating my new management about the Learning Ecosystem and the roadmap.

I’ve shared part of this before. 

“You know – we’ve been moving away from classroom training.  There is demand for it. I see a real growth opportunity there.”

Hmmm…. Do I take the bait?

In the slides that followed the one above (that I can’t share) – I demonstrated that many of the activities we currently perform are firmly centered around Content and that 10% formal.

Our infrastructure supports the 10%.
Our models support the 10%
We’ve been doing the 10% for years.

We’ve GOT the 10%

Where the growth opportunity for us TRULY is – helping develop and support the environment that allows the organization to use the 20% (Coaching / Mentoring / Collaboration) and the 70% (Learning-on-the-fly, as needed, in context).

20% – Our collaboration tools are in development and I’m hoping we can start accessing them and REALLY figure out how to build communities that leverage the expertise that is all around the University.

70% – Our “learning-on-the-fly” tools are all over the place.  That person really needs to have a good manager who happens to know some people to figure out where all of the information they need is housed.

90% and getting that right vs. 10% which we already have.

I know where I see the growth opportunity…..

System vs Personal views

When we compare the activities performed with and without the aid of a reminder list, we see that the conclusion one draws depends on the point of view being taken.  To the outside observer (who takes the system view), the same actions are intended to be performed with and without the list, but (usually) they are carried out more accurately and reliably with the list.  To the individual user (who takes the personal view), the list is not a memory or planning enhancer, it is a set of new tasks to be performed, with the aspects of the list relevant to memory and planning separated from the aspects of the list relevant to performance. – Donald Norman, 2007  (Thanks Clark!)

Many of the process improvement activities I’ve seen recently have consisted of creating artifacts (checklists, tools, applications) where there are none.  Formalizing “known” processes.

System view says that the development of an artifact to help aid memory and guide the performance of a task is an awesome thing!  Consistency, repeatability, not missing steps.  Tack on some governance in between to assist with prioritization and awareness and life will be perfect.

Personal view says that tacking on the use of this “thing” = slowdowns, unnecessary work, loss of freedom and obstacles to getting stuff done.

So much of what I do as an applications trainer consists of  selling the system view of a new artifact (often a software application) to a person.

Much of the pushback I receive is based on the personal view.

Often, that personal view is absolutely right.

That new artifact WILL cause slowdowns, unnecessary work (because they have to feed the artifact), loss of freedom (because they have to wait for permission vs. just doing it) and obstacles to getting stuff done (time spent justifying WHY they are doing it – meanwhile, the person is being pounded on by others to just get it done).

Are you creating the artifact to make the process go faster?

Are you creating the artifact to ultimately reduce the workload – both individually and collectively?

Are you creating the artifact to prevent harm? (e.g. patient death, airplane crash, massive IT system failure)

Are you creating the artifact to track activity to prove that you are performing activity? (Look! I work really HARD!)

Are you creating the artifact in an attempt to “control”?

If you are creating the artifact to make the process go faster, reduce the workload and prevent harm – that is an easy sale.  If you make it easy for me to see HOW the artifact will do that – even better.

However, if you are creating the artifact simply to increase tracking and control – for the sake of tracking and control…the chances of that artifact being adopted are very slim. 

Often, this results in retraining (hooray job security), the development of “punishments for not using the artifact” and ultimately abandonment (wasted money, time and energy).

Why are you creating the artifact?

An Example of Needs Assessment

Many organizational processes look like this.
During a recent project, one of our SMEs kept INSISTING “Everyone KNOWS the process!”
Then in the next sentence she complains about how they are doing it wrong.

Don’t know about you – but in my “professional” opinion, this tells me that their target audience either:
a) Does NOT KNOW the process
b) Doesn’t understand the process
c) Doesn’t like the process because it is too slow/awkward/seemingly unnecessary
d) All of the above

In this case, judging from her examples of how they are “doing it wrong”, I figured the answer was a).
The likelihood of the answer being d) was also very high.  Generally – I’ll choose d), then design with that assumption in mind.

Proven wrong – the audience gets a reminder.  Repetition helps learning.
Proven right – the audience gets what they need.


Now all that needs to happen is a simplification of the process so that we don’t have to worry so much about a-c.  ESPECIALLY c.

Since chance of that happening is next to nil (gotta leave room for a miracle) – I will remain employed.

Throw them in the deep end! (but keep a life preserver handy)

Child swimming in deep end“You’re setting them up to fail!” You’ve probably heard this if you’ve proposed starting with an activity instead of first providing instruction.

“Everyone knows” that people should be carefully shown how to do something and only then allowed to practice doing it. If you just throw them in the deep end, frustration and cognitive overload and squashed self-esteem will supposedly inhibit their learning.

However, several studies suggest that when we first challenge learners and then give them instruction, we can improve their ability to apply and extend their new knowledge. They could more effectively apply what they’ve learned to their jobs and to new situations.

In Scenario-Based Elearning, Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer point out this study on “productive failure,” which led me to several others.

In these and similar studies, students with some knowledge of a discipline were given a problem without first being told how to solve it. They floundered, usually in groups, and then their solutions were examined and they were taught the correct process.

These “productive failure” groups were slightly weaker at applying the new process than were the “direct instruction” groups who were first taught what to do. But the former flounderers were clearly better at applying what they learned to other situations and at developing additional models that they hadn’t been taught.

It’s not clear how much support is best during the initial challenge. Collaboration with other learners seems to help, so in lonely, asynchronous elearning you’ll want to provide at least some scaffolding, such as hints or questions that guide learners to the correct steps to take. If I were queen, this scaffolding would be optional, it wouldn’t teach the content, and it would be provided in the activity, not as pre-activity instruction.

Like most research in instruction, these studies were done on elementary and university students, not adults in the working world. But in contrast to many studies, the researchers went beyond assessing the correct regurgitation of facts and looked at how well learners applied and extended their knowledge, which is our goal in business training.

This slideshow by one of the researchers, Manu Kapur, summarizes some of the findings that might apply to us. Some papers are available as full text:

When you think about the lessons you’ve learned, which are the most memorable — the ones in which someone first taught you everything you needed to know, or the ones in which you at first floundered and even failed? Have you been able to convince stakeholders to let people learn through a challenge rather than instruction? Let us know in the comments!

Online course in scenario design

I’m developing a 4.5-hour scenario design mini-course that anyone can sign up for. We’ll meet online for three 90-minute sessions starting this fall. If you’d like to be notified when the online course is available, please sign up here and you’ll be among the first to hear about it.

I’ve also overhauled my scenario design webinar. It’s a one-hour online workshop you can request for your team or ASTD chapter.

Australia: upcoming public workshops

  • Nov. 13, Sydney: Training design master class for training managers at the Learning@Work conference
  • Nov. 26, Melbourne: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet
  • Nov. 29, Sydney: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet

Photo by anuarsalleh

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


As far as your fans know – you are only capable of hate.
I don’t hate golf….

A couple members of my team have just finished one of those trainers nightmare implementations.
As a follow-up, the subject-matter experts are doing further sessions on process and workflow.
From experience, I know this is a good thing.
My colleagues aren’t so sure and feel like they fell short.

Previous managers spent years drilling into my head that “image is important,” and I just can’t help but feel that …the need for these sessions damage our credibility and image in some way. 

For years, I knew the feeling.
The lot of the IT implementation trainer is to be the scapegoat of all that is wrong with the product and the project.

Be the rescuer of the ill-advised, the ill-planned and the ill-executed.

Make sows ears look like silk purses.

My initial response to my colleague was something along the lines of “We’re OK. The SMEs aren’t out to get us or make us look bad this time, so we’re ahead.”

But the more I thought about his comment, I realized that there was something else that bothered me…
A lot of leadership advice is filled with “fake it till you make it.”
Watch your body language.
Wear the appropriate costume.
Use x words.
Apply x tone.

What I have observed is that I get real uncomfortable when I run into someone or something that practices all of the “right” things.

Tutorials that are too polished and pretty.
Voice-overs that are too professional.
Salespeople and executives that look and sound “just right.”
Trainers that are a textbook example of “good trainer.”

I find myself looking for the catch.
Over the past few months, I’ve received some interesting feedback about my work.
The telecommuters seem to be responding to the unpolished nature of Tuesday Morning Telecommuter.
My colleagues have informed me that they appreciate my “honesty” when I train.
Other peers tell me they like my voice-overs – with the dropped letters, slight slurring, popped Ps and breathing noises.

When I look at my favorite trainers / bloggers / mentors / vendors / people – they all have authenticity about them.  There’s something messy, human and integrated that makes me trust them more.

This perspective is likely the result of me being terrible at “image control.”
My moods are written all over my face (despite my best efforts).
I tend towards the rumpled.
I get obviously uncomfortable if I have to skirt issues or not answer questions or withhold information.

But I also wonder if we are doing people a disservice if we keep preaching “Image is important.”
How about “Authenticity is important.”
“Connection is important”.
The hypothesis I am currently playing with in my own life….

If I am as open, honest and above-board as I can possibly be…
Image takes care of itself.

I’ll let you know what I find….

90+ Day Evaluation – The Subscription-Based Learning Experiment

So far, subscription-based learning has been a resounding success. At least in terms of popularity. I’ve received a lot of comments that they love the material. Find it useful. Look forward to each week’s post (which is saying something with the amount of bulk mail clutter we get in our inboxes each week). I’ve even gotten the first rock thrown. Mostly about the color of the blog template. And everyone KNOWS how I feel about complaints about the color. I’ve also started spreading the idea to colleagues. The next thing I need to figure out – whether there has been any actual performance improvement as a result of these posts. ————- Other things I found helpful… Pre-scheduling posts. Helps me stay on track…mostly. Also helps me space out the information they need to know for better absorption. Keeping 1 main concept in mind – Collaboration. I have made detours to more personal work efficiency and compliance issues upon request. These detours have not worked nearly as well. I will need to do a better job in future posts of looping these “detour” concepts into the idea of better collaboration. I’m thinking that if I am able to personally work more effectively (and keep myself out of trouble), I am better able to collaborate with others. The occasional “circle-back” to previous posts. This applies the repetition that Dr. Thalheimer found to be so important for retention. Flexibility in scheduling. Striking while topics are top-of-mind for the audience also helps retention and seems to fuel more discussion and participation by the audience. Also – if it seems applicable to their immediate needs, they are more likely to act on the information. Which is what I want. ————— Stuff I need to work on…. Audience Participation. I’m getting better participation than expected. However, Tuesday Morning Telecommuter is still pretty-much me, myself and I. Besides, if I want to have my theme be collaboration, it would help if my learning model was more collaborative. Better administrative workflow. Right now, Tuesday Morning Telecommuter is still a personal WordPress site with the “newsletter” being sent by hand through my own work email. I’ve hesitated to use the tools available at the University because what is currently out there is governed to death and would double the 8-10 hours I already spend each week creating the emails, videos and posts. Tagging and Navigation. I want this thing I am building to also be a referenceable resource. I just started experimenting with tagging and navigation. Eventually – I will be transferring all of this to a SharePoint site. The vision is that SharePoint will be a University resource that does magical things (from what I gather). We have such a problem with folks finding the information and support they need in my organization. I really don’t want to add to the problem. Figuring out whether this is making changes to the metrics that matter. As in – is this REALLY helping people do their jobs better or is it just popular?

Learning Under Stress

———– As some of my previous posts hinted, there’s been a lot going on in my life. My big problem has been focus. Which gremlin do I tackle first? Between the distraction of the work gremlins (walking colleagues through a trainers nightmare, renewing an important vendor contract, preparing for the new academic year and the resulting badly planned “emergency politically-sensitive” projects), a sudden call for jury duty, and worrying about Mom and Dad…it’s hard to tell where to start. ————— The personal emotions around the topic of accessibility right now has made it even harder for me to learn the disability support tools I am currently investigating. It’s not just basic “stress”. It’s fear for the worst. Hope for the best. Wishing that the people I love didn’t have to go through this hardship. Finding ways to help. I find myself distracted. Unable to absorb the information I’m learning. Even less able to apply the information. That doesn’t bode well for being able to teach it. ————– This is yet another reminder about the importance of what people bring into any learning situation. Where is their head at? Is there something else going on in their life that is 15x more important than learning a new project management tool? Or how not to harass people in the workplace? Or HIPAA / FERPA / OSHA / etceterA rules and compliance? Or any number of things we force people to learn in the workplace that have nothing to do with business objectives OR personal growth? Because if their head is not in it…. If they too are fighting their own, personal, multiplying gremlins… If what you are teaching and how you are teaching it brings its own emotional charge… Even if they are highly motivated to learn…. It will take a lot more “selling” of your idea. In the grand scheme of their life, your topic is not that important. And that is just as it should be.