Saturday, July 31, 2010


"A true leader always keeps an element of surprise up his sleeve, which others cannot grasp but which keeps his public excited and breathless."
                            -  Charles de Gaulle

Most people hate surprises.   Look at all of the time people spend planning and preparing.  There are libraries of business school books and popular culture tomes on the art and skill of preparation to get what you want.

How boring.

Think back to all of the really cool experiences you have had and more likely than not they involve a pleasant surprise.  You can really accomplish a lot when you present a learner with a challenge they did not anticipate.  Humans rise to challenges in good ways, challenges get them out of their boxes, tests get their juices flowing.  These are all cliches for a reason - they are classic human behavior.

We have started instituting unannounced "final wrap-up exercises" in all of our programs.  They're basically tests that we do not really announce so they aren't expected and most importantly, they are unprepared for.  

It all started as an accident, really.  We were looking for a good way to fill the final day of a course with something other than the marketing pablum that we all hate.  So we asked ourselves, "What if we gave them fresh systems after lunch, a couple of paragraphs paraphrasing what we did that week, and asked teams of students to basically demonstrate everything that they learned during the week?"

What a wild success.  We could hear pages flipping and murmurs around the room - "When did we do that?" and "I think I remember this."  The groups help pair really good students with those who had trouble so no one gets left out.  And they all leave with a level of confidence in their abilities orders of magnitude higher than before.  And the instructor is left to mingle and mentor, reinforcing certain skills and just getting to know better the customers.  

It is by far the best rated section of the class by customers.  Hands down.  And it all starts with a surprise after lunch.

Now I am not saying all surprises are good.  That letter with the return address from the IRS is never good. But you can make your experiences memorable with some good surprises, and your customers will learn more.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Did you know that 80% of statistics are made up by people to make their point?
I love that line.  It's funny but if you think about it, it goes far deeper.  Statistics are often the basis of decisions.  Look at almost every major decision your company made in recent years.  There was probably some study done by someone who found some historical trend and declared that was the one true path to future success.

And sometimes that is true, due to sheer momentum.  It's like someone claiming to be a real estate genius by buying in a rising market.  But more often big breakthroughs came because someone had the stones to do something different.  They saw something was wrong (or at least not "right") and they altered course.   Most of the major "brilliant" ideas were discovered that way.

Twilight was rejected by fourteen publishers before finally getting published.  J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter were rejected by 12 publishing houses.  Stephen King's classic horror book Carrie was rejected 30 times.

Would you want to be one of those editors today?  All of those publishers would have sworn on their careers that those books would never sell.  After all, that's why they rejected them!

So what's the point?

Your ideas will not be successful 100% of the time, but ideas you toss out because they're not exactly aligned with what you're doing now will fail 100% of the time.

Now that's a statistic.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Cooking and Training

Learning is like cooking short ribs.  You have to go slow and practice a few times before you get it just right.

Anyone who has ever made short ribs knows exactly what I am talking about.  When they are made right they are the tenderest morsels you will ever find - fork tender and almost falling apart in a stiff breeze.  But they only get that way if you cook them for a very long time at a relatively low temperature.  They cannot be rushed.  Turn up the temperature to go faster and you destroy the meat.  And you always have to practice a few times before you get it just the way you want it.

Learning is the same way.  Do this mental exercise:  You are given one hour to teach a total newbie a software package you know well.  How do you design your time together?

What most people do at this point is to begin to list all of the things they think they can cram into one hour.  Which is really a perfect way to accomplish the task "list all of things you can talk about regarding the software in one hour."  But that is not the task.  The perspective is completely wrong - it focuses solely on the performance of the instructor.

The right way to think about this is to list the most important three features of the software.  (Why three?  We will get there in a moment.)  Take the first important feature, design a way in which you will present it, and create an activity where the student has to use this feature in a hands-on environ.  When delivered, this will take most people about 20 minutes to accomplish from start to end (see where the three comes in:?  20 min x 3 = one hour).  Repeat for the other two key tasks.  If you want to be safe and accommodate extra for fast students add one or two more key tasks.

Do you see the difference?  The perspective is completely on the student, not what the instructor can do.

Learning is about the Learner.  Keep it that way and you will be ultimately successful.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Sometimes it isn't about efficiency

"If we incorporate more activities we won't be able to teach as much"
A good point, and one I'm personally glad my customer came to on their own.  We were discussing the fact that one of their program simply had too much lecture (my conclusion).  They were discovering people were leaving the program with too many questions and thus were not paying attention (their conclusion). 

They made the mistake that almost every single organization make when developing a program.  They developed a list of things they wanted to cover and paired it with an allotted time.  In other words, they determined they had three days to cram in a long list of items.

Of course it was almost completely lecture driven.  They could not have covered as much in three days with any other vehicle.
To illustrate the point I took one of their sections that was, by their estimation, a ten minute presentation.  In my redesign the lecture was converted to an activity that clearly impressed the customer.  There was no question about that point being far more memorable - remember that's the goal of a learning program.
And then they furrowed their brow and uttered the opening quote.
"Exactly," I said.

Then I posed a question: "Do you want to complete a checklist or do you want your people to learn something?"

We had a good conversation about the options.  With a properly designed program comprehension and retention were great, but it was clearly less efficient from a topic/time perspective.  There are clearly two choices at this point - extend the program or cut out topics.  In the vast majority of cases three are a lot of "fat" topics that can be trimmed, replaced by job aid or reference materials.

In developing any learning or performance program you have to ask yourself, "What do people really need to know?" and then let the course define it's own length.

That is the recipe for success.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Shut up already, I'm tryin' to Learn!

Well, by no stretch of my imagination do I believe you've all come here to hear me lecture.
This is a quote from Good Will Hunting.  I thought it was funny at the time, but not for the reasons in the movie (although to give credit that was witty).  In my mind's eye I pictured a plaque hanging in every training room that had this quote on it.  I would put it right below the clock.

For those of you that don't regularly give classes, many training centres, auditoriums, and lecture halls hang clocks in the back of the room.  When I was a student I always wondered why they would hang a clock in the back of the room where nobody could see it.  Isn't it interesting, the biases we bring?

Thinking no one could see the clock was arrogant, assuming that mine was the only valid perspective.  When in fact it was hanging there for the only person whose perspective did matter - the instructor.  The clock was there for the speaker, not the student population.  It's the speaker's job to keep on time.

In the high tech classroom, there are really two instructors.  There is the human in the front of the room and the computer in front of each student.  And learning is really only going to occur when the student gives his or her undivided attention to one of them.  As much as my ego would like it to be, it is not the human.

So it's incumbent on the instructor to lead the room, and then get out of the way.  That clock will remind you - if you are still talking after 20 minutes it's time to stop.  30 minutes and you're really out of line.  An hour?  Let's not go there.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Are Evaluations Useless?

I had a great time in class, great snacks.
I read a lot of evaluations like that. Apparently the customer had a good time in class.

But did he learn anything?

I don't really care if they liked the snacks, or if they thought the class was "Excellent" or "Good."  That's not why they paid good money and took time away from their job to be there.  If that was my goal I would have catered the event and shown a popular movie on dvd.

The only real question I ask after a course is, "Was this a valuable use of your time?"

Customers are making an investment in themselves or their people by placing them in a training class.  They are expecting to learn something that will make their job easier or faster or more productive.  Anything else is simply entertainment.

Everyone in the industry has heard of Kirpatrick's 4 levels of evaluation:  Reaction, Learning, Behavior, Results.  Most people think that the "Level 4" evaluation is the ultimate goal - but they ignore one particular key factor: the effects on the business or environment resulting from the trainee's performance is completely dependent on the corporate culture and whether management will allow change based on the training.

The real benchmark for the instructional designer is behavior.  Did you get through to someone well enough to impact their behavior?

And that's why I ask the question, Are evaluations useless?

An evaluation only measures how someone feels as they are in class or just after.  And evaluations always ask questions about the room, the environment, the instructor.  They never ask behavior questions because you won't know about that for some time.  So why ask the question in the first place?

The only thing that you can measure on the way out is if the customer thought their time was spent in a valuable manner.  Chances are if they thought it was a valuable use of their time they have specific ideas in their head about how they will use the knowledge back at work.  And that's the very best you can do after a class.

Focus on the Important, not Completeness

I would rather people remember five important things from a week long class than present them with everything and have them try to sort it out.

Too many training classes are designed  from the developer's point of view.  They create a task list that is basically a checklist of the product features.  The final steps are to design a class around that task list.

So what's wrong with this picture?

It's focused on the wrong thing.  Not once did someone step back and ask a couple of key questions.

What do we really want them to know?
Unless that product is Windows Calculator, no one is going to remember all of the features of a product in one class.  I cannot stand it when I see something in a class that is just silly.  I ask the course designer why this is in there, and is usually get answers like, "It's a feature" or "Someone might use that."  That is, to me, insanity.  You are wasting someone's valuable time (and money) discussing some obscure feature that might be interesting trivia but nothing beyond that.  That kind of thing belongs in a sidebar note or a recorded webinar.

How will they use the software?
One of the hardest things for a software developer to grasp is that users may not use their software the way they want them to.  You can hear this in conversations that include the phrase, "Well they're not supposed to do that."

Rubbish.  Good course designers will adjust their task lists based on feedback and observations on how the software is used in the field.

You need to ask, What is really important?  Then you design a  task list and teach to that, including plenty of time for practice and self discovery.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Are You Killing Performance?

.. people are an organization's most valuable resource and that a manager's job is to prepare and free people to perform.
                         - Peter Drucker

I still find it amazing when I come across someone in management who feels it is an employee's job to listen and obey.  Highly paid professionals that end up being nothing more than robots.  There is absolutely no discernible acknowledgment of who actually does the work that keep those high management pay checks from bouncing.

I have a friend who working in Marketing in a fortune 100 company.  Recently they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a detailed and extensive market research campaign around the world.  The total bill was probably closer to seven figures when you add up everything and everyone involved.  From producing test materials to interviews to planing an execution the project took months.  People slaved to meet deadlines and their lives were disrupted with the tight global travel schedules.  So what's the point?

When it was all done and produced the VP looked at the results and tossed everything in the garbage.  She personally preferred another design.

In one ignorant, oblivious move she utter destroyed every ounce of motivation and respect her employees had for not only her but the organization.  Months of their professional efforts - which were significant and produced excellent data - were simply dismissed arbitrarily.

She destroyed their performance.

Never again did her people work as hard on any project, because the specter of it getting tossed in the trash always hung over their group.

If she simply kept  Peter Drucker's philosophy in mind she would have a well oiled machine at her disposal.  Now all she has are people going through the motions.

Training is simply one facet of Human Performance. You have to let your people use their skills to produce excellence, lead them in bettering their skills, and let them loose. 

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you have to have input on every idea? (micromanaging)
  • Do you ever just have a meeting and listen? (respecting your people's professional opinion)
  • Have you ever backed a direction or decision you had reservations about?  (trusting your people to make mistakes and learn)

Friday, July 02, 2010

Innovate? Imitate!

Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.
We are bombarded with messages of innovate, be creative, find something new, blaze a new trail.  And those are great messages.  we should all strive but find that next best thing as we go about our daily work lives. 

But don't forget an important thing - some things just work.  There are proven methods that just work, because they have captured a truth about the human condition.  Take the thing you're looking at right now - the computer - as an example.  Long ago technologists discovered that people don't like looking at screens of text, and that users much prefer point and click.  Is it more efficient?  in most cases not at all.  But it's our human preference (I do have geek friends that still don't "get that whole mouse thing.").

And for me one of the most interesting things in the whole evolution of the computer is that the people that have been successful in operating system interfaces (Apple and Microsoft) did not actually come up with the idea!  The Apple guys "borrowed" it from Xerox and Microsoft was "inspired" by the Apple design.  They tweaked the original.

So what's the main message?  Don't let the lack of a completely new idea hamstring your productivity.  Some of the most iconic things in life were simply variations, while some were truly new and innovative.  In the end it doesn't matter.