Show me the problem! From instructional designer to performance consultant

Have you ever delivered a learning program and found that, nothing seems to have changed as a result? In this guest blog, Jean Marrapodi explores this common issue and challenges instructional designers to start thinking of themselves more as performance consultants.


Been there, done that!

You open your email, to a message from the Director of Distribution:

“My delivery people are taking forever to get their job done. Production is backed up because their turnaround time is just too slow. My people need to be retrained in wheel moving. I need a day-long, hands-on session to help them be more efficient. Can you help me?”

Excitedly, you begin noodling relay race games to build team camaraderie and efficiency. Gamification is always a sure-fire winner with the line staff. You schedule the session, run all your drills, recap the evaluations and as you predicted, they loved the class. You send the results to the Director, who seems pleased.

Two weeks later, the Director emails you again:

“That didn’t work. They are no faster than before. As a matter of fact, they are a bit slower now because they are spending so much time chatting. Maybe we need an elearning module to explain ‘supply chain management’, so they can see the bigger picture.”

Lucky for you, there’s a supply chain management course in your content library, so you assign the applicable modules to the workers. With a little nudging, they all complete the course. A week later, you check in with the Director to find out how things are going:

“Nada. Nothing. There’s no movement at all”.

The Director is ready to hand me my head on a silver platter if this doesn’t improve. Perplexed, you ask if you can come on a ride along to see what’s actually happening on the job. Equipped with your notebook and iPhone, your plan is to capture evidence of the application of the things you’ve taught them and see what gaps might exist. It doesn’t take long for you to see what’s been going wrong. Take a look, I’ll bet it didn’t take you very long to see what was wrong.

square wheels
Square Wheels ©2009 Scott Simmerman


In this story, the Director of Distribution believed he understood the problem and had a solution for it. Unfortunately, when we are in the middle of a muddle we may not be able to see the forest from the trees. Even worse, there are times that the problem becomes so overwhelming, all we see is bark view –  never mind the trees!

We spend time examining the minutiae, grasping at straws, examining the intricacies and the little bugs running between the folds of the tree’s outermost layer. It often takes an outsider to help us take a step back and see the bigger picture. Here, as in many organizations, the Distribution Group continued to do the same things in the same way and perpetuated a problem rather than solve it because they were examining the wrong things.


The Instructional Designer’s Role: Performance Consultant

Albert Einstein is purported to have said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” While were not absolutely certain he was the one who said so, the principle does make sense. It is really important to understand a problem and its root causes before we try to solve it.

As Instructional Designers, we really must serve as Performance Consultants when we are given an assignment.  In our fast-paced world, the needs assessment part of our projects tends to be the piece that gets short changed, but this is the only place that we really learn what’s going on in the system and can look for root causes.

Many new Instructional Designers (and sadly, even some who have been at this for a while) receive an assignment and begin to analyze the content to create a classroom session or elearning. Working tirelessly, they build a lovely something-or-other because that’s what the client asked for. Yet is it what the client needed? In our first story, it certainly wasn’t.

A Performance Consultant takes a step back and asks what the real need is. This stems from understanding the difference between the current state and the desired state to define the gap for remediation. More importantly, they ask why the issue is occurring. The business need is examined.


Prevention is better than cure

In quality management  issues are tended to with corrections, corrective action, and/or preventative action. If water spills, it is cleaned up. This is the correction. Corrective action asks why it was spilled and looks for a fix so it doesn’t happen again. This is putting a lid on the water bottle to avoid more spills. Preventative action, on the other hand, examines risk and thinks about where spilled water could be an issue. Here is where a decision is made not to allow water to be near laptops. We prevent the possibility of spilled water ruining a laptop by preventing the water being spilled on it. We need to learn to think like this – systemically – to look at the bigger picture and the issue at hand when we develop training.

Example: A call center is getting new software.

Problem: Reps need to be able to continue to meet customer demand using the new software without a performance drop.

Typically in our world, the request would be received in Learning and development and then people would be trained in how to use the software. This does not focus on the true business need or solve the customer problem. There are many features of new software, but the key is that the learner needs to do their job with it. That’s the business need, which should impact the goals and outcomes of the program.  The problem is the business need to minimize the learning curve and enable to reps to answer questions in the new system.

The goal for this problem would be: call center reps will be familiar enough with the new software to be able to effectively use the new software to answer questions and solve common customer issues and be able to use search functions to quickly research outliers.  There’s a direct connection with the need and the solutions.

When designing training –  whether it’s elearning, blended, or instructor led training – I recommend starting with the problem. If you cannot define the problem in a single sentence (at a high level), it is not defined well enough, and you need to ask more questions. Once you know the problem, you can define the goal, then the outcomes and objectives. Always work to keep the main thing the main thing. It’s not about the content. It’s about leveraging the content to meet the need and solve the problem.

What’s the problem you are trying to solve today? Be sure you know, lest you perpetuate the insanity of doing the same thing in the same way and expecting different results.

Download this project planning template to help you identify your project needs up front!

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