Building Bridges

The Client/Vendor Relationship: Defining Success

2. Define success: How do you define what success will look like? 

In our last post we discussed problem definition. As part of that we delve into defining success.

Veronica Clements, Client perspective

As the client, an important part of preparing a request for proposal or discussing my needs with a prospective vendor is to determine results I want to see at the project’s conclusion. In other words, what will success look like for the client and the vendor?

In the example from part 1 in this series, a new process is introduced and the employees need to be ready to use the new procedure starting in three months. Based on the project goals and discussions with the stakeholders, I would prepare target outcomes for the learners and the managers, such as:

  1. 95% of participants pass the final learning assessment with a score of 80% or better.
  2. Managers spot check key steps while employees are working and provide reinforcement a few weeks following the course.
  3. Employees are following the new process, improving accuracy to 99%.

In this example, our result for passing the final learning assessment measures learning outcome. The quality check by managers supports application of new skills on the job. There is an existing department process in place to measure the improvement to accuracy, specifically to improve accuracy to 99%.

Sometimes, as an internal resource, I don’t always see all elements of the big picture. Therefore, I frequently benefit from hearing the vendor’s additional suggestions as well as confirmation of our success measures.

Irene Stern Frielich, Vendor perspective

I, the vendor, really like it when a client has defined success. But that isn’t always the case and, in those instances, I ask more questions! For example, I often ask something as open-ended as: What will success look like? Or: At the end of this project, how will we both know if my team was able to provide what you are looking for?

Once we have some success metrics, my next step is to ensure the metrics are something we’d be able to influence. For example, if the client expects us to ensure their managers spot check key steps as a measure of success, we need to be engaged in creating a solution to support managers in doing that. But, often, there are “environmental” – or non-training-related influencers – on the success of training. So, we’ll need to agree on our role as vendor in this engagement. However, if we are simply being asked to create a training program on a process for employees performing that procedure, I would let the client know that only the first measure (95% of participants pass the final learning assessment with a score of 80% or better) is fully applicable to our work.

Keys to success

CLIENT: Define measures of success for the project, obtain input from prospective vendors, and clarify responsibilities for each success measure.

VENDOR: Define the client’s “success” expectations and be clear about which of these the vendor can address.

Next time: Selecting a vendor.

Veronica Clements, formerly a Learning and Development leader, with 25 years’ experience engaging vendors.

Irene Stern Frielich, President of EnVision Performance Solutions, with 20 years as a vendor providing solutions to clients.

The Client/Vendor Relationship: Getting Off to a Great Start!

What happens when you are asked to take on more work than you can handle– either due to capacity or capability? Let’s say your manager just laid a huge project on you – to develop a new training curriculum for a group that has been having some challenges. Because you don’t have the resources you’ll need to get the work done by the date it is expected, you consider hiring a vendor.

In a series of posts, we propose five guidelines to help you, as the program manager, select a vendor and lay the groundwork for a successful relationship. At the same time, we share tips for the vendor about positioning yourself to become a strong partner with the client. We have been in your role, we gladly share our experience in this series, and would be happy to talk with you about our ideas and hear yours.

The first step for the client is to define the problem.

1. How do you define the problem and related supports and challenges?

Veronica Clements, Client perspective

Who has ever had a short-term project thrust on them seemingly out of nowhere? Or maybe I should ask who hasn’t?! I get those requests more often than I would like to admit! Imagine yourself with a new project you are quickly trying to scope, knowing you need to find an L&D vendor to work with. Where do you start?

As the client, I begin by defining my problem. Here’s an example of a project definition: A new process is being introduced. If the employees don’t follow the new process, errors and rework would result, causing frustration to internal customers. I determine that I need a course developed about the new process and I expect 200 employees to be trained in the next three months. In preparation, I identify related supports for the project, such as available subject matter experts (SMEs) and pertinent existing content and documentation. Next, I identify any potential challenges, such as the process that is still being updated or the target training launch date just 3 months away.

After review, I determine I don’t have adequate internal resources to work on this project, so I ask vendors to prepare a proposal to address my problem and the challenges I’ve listed. It is important for me to gather basic needs assessment information from the stakeholders before finalizing a request for proposal. This helps me to clarify course goals, project resources, and high-level timelines.

The next thing I do is define success, which we will discuss in the next blog post.

 

Irene Stern Frielich, Vendor perspective

When I, as the vendor , receive a request for proposal or am discussing a new project with a client, I ask a lot of questions. I recognize that my client might be deeply immersed in her challenge and may find value from the objectivity I bring. Based on the project outlined, I’ll ask more about context. For example, why was the process changed? What problem was that intended to solve? If it sounds like the client conducted a high-level needs assessment, I might add: What were the results of your needs assessment? What were the surprises? What challenges were identified? When I as the vendor ask these types of probing questions, I gain some insights and get more clarity about results the client is expecting. Sometimes the conversation raises additional questions the client may need to research further.

I’ll also ask about existing related documentation, such as procedures, presentations, and process flows, as well as a list of SMEs available to work on this project. If there is little existing documentation, we’ll need the expert to spend time “brain dumping” for us and we’ll make that expectation clear from the start. I’ll also ask more questions about the audience – why are they not following the new process? What, besides training, might help them? What has already been tried and how/why did it help or not? Basically, I want to ensure that if we do prepare a proposal and ultimately engage in the work, we are able to have a positive impact.

I will also ask questions about the client’s internal capabilities and capacity. For example, if this will be an instructor-led classroom course, are there skilled trainers to deliver the training? What level of detail is needed in the instructor guide we create? Or, if it is an online course: What authoring tool does the client’s organization use? Is there an internal resource who will make post-launch course updates? This will help me determine the tools we will use and our approach in documenting the production notes and programmer explanations.

Keys to success

CLIENT: Complete basic information gathering to define and document your problem with related supports and challenges.

VENDOR: Ask questions to clarify the issue, gain context, and uncover additional challenges and supports in order to write a proposal with clear project scope.

Next time: Defining success.

Veronica Clements, formerly a Learning and Development leader, with 25 years’ experience engaging vendors.

Irene Stern Frielich, President of EnVision Performance Solutions, with 20 years as a vendor providing solutions to clients.

2019, Here We Come!

After a wonderful few days spent with family and friends, I feel reenergized and ready to meet 2019 head on! How about you?

For many of us, the new year brings challenges, like reprioritizing our time so we’re focused on the right things or learning the next great tool or process or figuring out how to do more with less at work. And if we manage others, we may also need to help them prioritize, learn, and grow themselves.

Here are a few ideas to help you gear up for 2019.

  1. Find or be a mentor. If you’re in the earlier part of your career or exploring a new area and don’t have a mentor, find one. By having a mentor, you’ll be able to learn and be connected to others in a way you wouldn’t be able to on your own. Plus, if there comes a time when you need professional advice, a mentor is a great person to turn to.

      If you’re a seasoned professional, then consider mentoring someone else. As a mentor, you can positively impact someone else by passing on your own insights, and you might even get some gratification out of being a mentor!

    • Take a class. Whether you want to learn about QuickBooks or quality control or tai kwon do, there’s a class out there for you. See what your company or professional associations or community education groups offer. Locate online learning opportunities such as lynda.com or free MOOCs (massive open online course) offered by HarvardX. I actually learned how to calibrate my oven by melting sugar in it when I took HarvardX’s online food and chemistry course a couple years back. You may even decide to branch out and audit an academic class at a university, perhaps your alma mater.
    • Network! Find a professional association to join and commit to attending 3 events in the next 6 months, or reach out to individuals you’d like to get to know better and invite them to coffee (with a focus in mind, of course). While many of us promise ourselves we’ll network, too often this pledge gets tossed aside in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Job opportunities, new projects, and great ideas or connections can come from networking, and it’s also fulfilling to help someone else out. Networking creates new relationships and helps deepen established relationships to create a fabric of professional support — one that is invaluable for everyone.
    • Set goals. Goals aren’t just for an annual performance review at work. Set your annual career learning goals and also set some personal targets. My personal goal for 2019 is to complete a first draft of a book I am writing. It’s easier to stay on track if you break down the goals into manageable tasks and evaluate them each week or two. Establishing goals that are clear and specific is best. For my book writing, I have a goal of completing three half-day writing sessions per month.
    • Keep an open mind. Sometimes new opportunities arise when you least expect them and sometimes things just don’t go as easily as you expected, so goals need to be flexible. I’m not sure how realistic my 2019 book-writing goal is, so I plan to reassess my progress every two or three months and adjust my goals or focus as needed. Maybe I’ll need to write more frequently or give myself another few months to complete my draft, or perhaps I’ll need to spend less time watching the Great British Baking Show to fit in more writing!

    Hope you have a great start to 2019!

    The Manager’s Role in the Training Story

    Imagine that you work as a manager, heading up a department of six people, and tomorrow Alex, one of your reports, plans to attend training all day. He let you know that he’d be attending this class on project management, and that he needs someone to cover for him while he’s away. Knee-deep in work yourself, you ask one of Alex’s colleagues to cover his crucial items.

    But do you know what this training is really about? And do you know what you should expect Alex to be able to do differently as a result of attending this class? You get frustrated when Alex completes projects quickly, but misses key steps he probably shouldn’t at this point in his career. Will this performance need get addressed at this training session? You’re now wondering if you should have paid greater attention to managing his performance and determining his training needs.

    Instructional designers and subject matter experts can put all of their expertise and effort into creating an effective course for learners. However, if the employee’s manager doesn’t involve herself or support the effort, the knowledge and skills learned may not “stick.”

    Mary L. Broad, in Beyond Transfer of Training, describes managers as stakeholders in the performance improvement process. “There are many stakeholders in complex organizations who have strong interests in effective performance and who can provide necessary support for the performance. For all interventions to develop or improve performance, primary stakeholders include: supervisors and team leaders, and—for strategically important interventions—top executives and managers…” ¹

    How should the manager get involved in training for his reports? Let’s consider how a training program resembles a successful sale—both offer important solutions to the end user. As a salesperson pursues closing a sale, the manager aims to improve her team’s performance. This doesn’t happen instantly, however, just like a major sale doesn’t. There are several actions managers can, and should, perform before, during and after to support learning and help ensure it is successful.

    Introduction: Prime the Learner

    A salesperson begins his job by getting to know the prospect—uncovering their needs, introducing services to meet those needs, and establishing a good relationship in the pre-sale stage. Managers should similarly take advantage of the pre-training time, referred to as “priming,” to set the stage for the employee to learn.

    Before training can occur, what items does the manager tackle? In the priming stage, she “helps to identify the performance need” that the training will address, according to Broad. It’s important that manager familiarize herself with the training program, including its learning objectives. Beyond that, a lot of the “introduction” tasks include logistics, such as giving the employee time to attend the class and complete any pre-work ahead of time.

    It is the manager’s role to talk with the employee before training with three goals in mind: to share the value of learning, hear what the employee hopes to gain from the training, and talk about performance expectations once the training is complete. Understandably, a big part of what the manager does is support and encourage the employee, which will help the training go smoothly.

    Priming often involves a partnership between the manager and training function. Before training begins, the person responsible for delivering the training may share a checklist of questions with the manager, so she can discuss the course material with the employee.

    The Sale: Close and Provide Support

    A sale is made! When the sale closes, the customer learns how to use the product or service, often with the aid of customer service. The salesperson may contribute in ways that enhance the customer’s experience, such as offering specific suggestions related to the customer’s situation. Similarly, the manager contributes in ways that make it easier for the employee to learn. The manager ensures that a colleague covers the employee’s work in his absence. The manager should also provide any needed materials, like lab equipment for technical training, for the employee to use and practice on.

    Post-Sale: Follow Up and Cement the Learning

    After the product or service has been purchased, a salesperson follows up with the customer to make sure the solution worked as promised and to see if any other tools or support are needed. Similarly, the manager sits down with the employee after training for a follow-up meeting. In this conversation, the manager aims to find out what the employee learned, which items he may have struggled with, and the top two or three things he may want to do differently.

    The manager should observe the employee’s behavior and work habits to see what successful changes he has made, and provide both positive and constructive feedback. These post-training activities can both strengthen the manager-employee relationship and help the employee apply what he’s learned.

    Need help with keeping track of what activities managers can do to support their employees attending training, and what sample questions managers can ask before and after the training? Click here for EnVision’s checklist.

    ¹Broad, Mary L. (2005) Beyond Transfer of Training: Engaging Systems to Improve Performance. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer, An Imprint of Wiley, page 31.

    Go From Zero to 60! Accelerate the Productivity of Your Novice Instructional Designer

    Have you been in a situation where you’ve engaged a Subject Matter Expert (SME) from your organization to develop a training program? It can make a lot of sense to do that – she will have the content knowledge and experience to pass along to others, and she will be thrilled to share it—it’s her work, and she finds it meaningful.

    There’s a downside, though. Courses designed by experts with little ID experience often won’t make the grade. They can be too long, include too much irrelevant or “nice to know” content (because, after all, doesn’t the SME want to share all the information she loves so much?), or don’t engage the learner. The result? You’ll have courses that aren’t as effective as you might need them to be.

    Other times, you may hire a novice learning professional into an ID position. You assign him to develop a course from scratch, hoping his lack of knowledge of learning science and current best practices won’t be an issue.

    I have encountered both of these situations many times, and I’ve seen L&D managers struggle with educating their novice IDers, usually due to a time crunch.

    So, how can you get your novice IDer up and running? One approach our clients have used is targeted mentoring. With mentoring, you can engage an experienced instructional designer mentor – your very own coach – who will work one-on-one with the individual to address specific learning gaps and help her develop self-reliance.

    How Can ID Mentoring Work?

    Let’s use an example to illustrate how you might use mentoring to develop a team member.

    My client, a new IDer whom we’ll call Alex, had worked as an admin in his company’s learning and organizational development group. Alex was promoted to instructional designer and started out updating existing courses. Then he needed to create a course from the ground up. However, his manager, stretched thin, didn’t have the time needed to support his development and had no other ID professionals to help. So, she engaged me to help Alex get up to speed. Our goal was to help him design the course and to work more independently in the future.

    At our initial meeting, Alex and I identified the primary goal of our mentoring engagement: to develop and launch a Good Documentation Practices course. Next, we discussed the business need for this course, the problems it should solve, before considering the foundational skills Alex would need. Since this course was being developed from the ground up, the list included:

    • conducting needs assessments
    • building successful partnerships with subject matter experts
    • writing learning objectives
    • determining the evaluation strategy
    • identifying learning modalities
    • incorporating techniques to engage learners and create effective learning.

    We planned a series of meetings, about twice a month for six or more months.

    In the follow-up meetings, we focused on one skill at a time. I would share some (but not too much!) of the theory associated with a skill, a method or approach for applying it, and the importance of using the method or approach. For example, when we covered writing learning objectives, we studied Robert Mager’s approach and Bloom’s taxonomy. We discussed the ways those methods could help Alex and where they might be challenging to use. Then, we created a couple of learning objectives for his course and analyzed how each one aligned with the two systems.

    Then, the rubber met the road. I assigned Alex to write the rest of the learning objectives for his course.

    Before our next meeting, I asked Alex to send me the learning objectives he created, along with any questions he had. I responded to the questions with guidance and encouraged him to continue working (most important!)

    The next time we met, we reviewed Alex’s final learning objectives, made tweaks, and revisited Mager and Bloom. Then, we moved onto the next skill and wash, rinse, repeat. After every one or two meetings, I updated Alex’s manager with highlights of the sessions and a list of Alex’s next steps. When appropriate, I also suggested ways the manager could provide support.

    Why Choose Targeted Mentoring over ID Classes?

    1. You can develop a timeline to fit the mentee’s schedule. If a mentee needs to be away from work, she won’t miss a class and you don’t need to worry about what she didn’t get to learn. Instead, you have the flexibility to create a schedule around the learner’s calendar or make last minute changes when necessary.
    2. Your involvement promotes accountability. As the learner’s manager, you should attend the initial meeting between her and her mentor, and then consider joining periodically, which sends a message that you take the program seriously. Also, if you request regular updates about the learner’s progress, you can monitor and support it. This also enables you share your input and shape the mentorship to fit your team’s goals.
    3. The individualized action learning approach focuses on the mentee’s specific needs. The process of studying a topic, immediately applying it to a real project, and then receiving targeted feedback and assistance allows a new IDer to fill specific competency gaps.

    So, returning to our example, what is Alex up to, a few months after completing his mentorship? He has successfully launched the course he was working on, and it has received a positive reception from the business unit it supports. Meanwhile, he and his manager feel that his skillset and professional potential have grown. So, Alex’s manager has assigned him more courses to develop, which are launching according to plan. It’s a win-win!

    Warm nights, flip-flops, and networking? Yes!

    Five Ways to Improve Your Networking

    Summer is an important season to focus on building your network. People feel relaxed and want to get out and mingle, so it’s easy to make new contacts. This does not, however, mean that networking itself is easy. While I enjoy networking, it’s definitely a skill — like any other — I’ve honed over the years.

    Below, I thought I’d share some of the networking approaches I have used most successfully. And, if you have others to share, please write me and I’ll be happy to add your approach to the list!

    1. Setting three specific goals before attending a networking event or meeting. When I come in with goals, I am better focused and get more out of the event. My goals depend on the event and could be as different as connecting with someone proficient in a particular skill, or meeting three new people with whom I will follow up later. This bring us to our next tip…
    2. Following up with contacts after the event. Yes, it’s time consuming to do so, but following up with a call or email helps build meaningful relationships. I find it beneficial to plan time in my calendar to follow up after every event, so this action item doesn’t get overlooked.
    3. Reaching out to ask for help. Asking someone else for assistance is a great way to make a connection! Too often, we don’t do this, because we don’t want to admit that we need help. However, people like to be asked to assist, and it’s a good way to establish common ground and bond with folks in our career fields. For example, I was interested in having something translated from Dutch. I put out a request on my town’s listserv and was well rewarded, with multiple connections from whom to choose!
    4. Remembering that anyone has the potential to be a worthwhile connection. When networking, people tend to limit themselves—to their field, career level, or both. The truth is that people from a wide variety of fields—or someone they know—could be a future employer, partner, or client. A few years ago I met someone who had an executive coaching practice. He eventually took a job within an organization, but we stayed in touch. When the stars aligned (well, more likely because we kept in contact), he reached out to me when a need arose.
    5. Staying in touch regularly, and not just when I need something. While people do like to help their colleagues, if I’m only in touch when I need something, others will see through that. I treat my colleagues like I would any other relationship—I offer support, ask for support, and am available when they want to run something by me. I might share an article with a contact, or simply say hi now and then. Networking can be a lot like growing plants—it takes time, patience, and water, not to mention the right weather, to see those green shoots sprout.

    Here’s an example showing how these tips worked for me to land a significant client: I once volunteered as a coach in an annual undergrad event at Babson and set a goal of meeting 3 new people during the training session. I introduced myself to the other coaches seated around me, asking about their companies and the work they do. One of these coaches was a new training manager. After the event, I followed up with him a few times, offering to be a sounding board and listening to how his transition was going. About six months later, he had a need for EnVision’s services and engaged us in more projects over several years. We still stay in touch and help each other out with advice and connections.

    I will continue to allocate regular time for networking activities. I never know whom I might meet or to whom I might be introduced. Maybe I’ll see you at an event soon? And feel free to reach out anytime you’d like to bounce ideas around – whether you have on your flip-flops or any other types of footwear!

    Is Your Course Just “Healthy Enough?”

    Last week, I went to the doctor for my routine exam – something I do every year. While I don’t find the experience unpleasant, it can be kind of a pain. I need to take time from my busy schedule to attend the appointment and any follow-up care that results. Sometimes I wonder, why do I go? Is it really necessary? I feel “good enough,” right?

    After my appointment, it occurred to me that my routine doctor’s exam resembles a course audit in more than a few ways. While I often feel “good enough” when I go to my regular appointment, I go to get a picture of my well-being. This knowledge will hopefully allow me to stay healthy or improve my well-being. Similarly, professionals who seek feedback on a course want to ensure the course’s “health.” They don’t want their course to be just “good enough.”

    Of course, we monitor a course’s “health” differently than we do our own. In a doctor’s exam, the physician will assess the patient’s heart, lungs, and general appearance, as well as her blood pressure. Medical benchmarks or “objectives”— for blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose levels and more — give the physician and patient a guide of where she should be. If the patient is not within a healthy range for some of these barometers, the doctor counsels the patient how to improve her health, whether it be through diet, exercise, or medication.

    Instructional designers pronounce a course “healthy” when it engages learners and effectively meets the course’s learning objectives and/or the company’s business goals. EnVision’s course audit offers both assessment and advice, and it’s a pretty thorough exam!

    EnVision’s consultants will attend the class if it’s live, and review all class materials. We measure the class against our proprietary 80-point checklist. We’ll then determine what in the course worked well and can stay, what needs to be improved or should go, and how well the material and activities support the learning objectives. We prioritize the list of improvements, so the client knows which ones will have the highest impact. We include these points in a written report that we go over with the client in a follow-up conversation.

    EnVision’s course audit provides a snapshot of a course’s “health.” Our clients then have the option of updating the course themselves, or engaging us to help.

    Just like a medical exam provides a person with information to better her health, a course audit gives the organization tools to improve a course, whether it is a live class or elearning. This “health snapshot” points the instructional designer in the best direction to update the course, and ensures it meets the needs of both the learners and the organization.

    A Trust Relationship: It Doesn’t Have to Be “Exhaust”ing

    I have a 10-year-old car. It’s a great car – a silver Honda CRV with over 125,000 miles that’s whisked our family on many vacations, transported the kids to and from school, and conveyed me to many a work meeting. I take good care of my car, having it serviced (at the dealer!) whenever it prompts me for service. Then one day, a low rumble from the car’s exhaust startled me.

    My dealer told me it would be well over $1000 to replace the muffler and pipe. Again, I love my car. But I couldn’t see spending that amount on it. So, I went to Lou, an exhaust specialist. Lou looked around and identified the problem – a hole in the exhaust pipe. He could repair the pipe for $80. Lou advised me NOT to replace the rest of the still-excellent pipe, and told me the muffler was fine. It would take 20 minutes to fix.

    Wow. I probably would have been willing to pay $500, and would have been happy to have saved at least that much. Now I’m sharing the name of the exhaust specialist with my friends and family. What did Lou do that was so great (besides the obvious huge dollar savings)?

    I could pretty clearly see a process Lou followed, one I’ve been spending some time with recently. It’s called the Trust Process, from The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles Green, and Robert Galford. Here are the key steps in the trust process, and how I saw them played out:

    1. Engage – Lou was highly recommended and rated, so I felt he would be a good person to have take a look at my car. Once I met Lou, he helped me feel confident by letting me know he would figure out what the problem was.
    2. Listen – After listening to my car complaint, Lou put my car on the lift and took a look while I checked my email in the waiting area.
    3. Frame the Issue – Then he brought me under my car (cool!) and showed my exactly what was going on. I saw the hole, understood how he could repair it, and agreed to the $80 fix. He also told me what I didn’t need to do (replace the whole pipe or the muffler).
    4. Envision an Outcome – Lou said yes, that this fix would eliminate the noise, and that there would be no adverse impact.
    5. Commit – I agreed to the work. And, 20 minutes later it was done. My car sounds less “exhaust”ed now.

    While this scenario is a bit simplistic, we can probably all apply it to many work situations we encounter. Here is one example from EnVision’s work:

    1. Engage – In a regular conversation with Barry, a client, about an ongoing project, I realized he might have a need for mentoring, a service we offer. Since we have a strong relationship, I was able to probe and ask more about the situation. This conversation got him engaged and interested in discussing this further.
    2. Listen – I listened to Barry’s situation, concerns, and needs, asking additional questions to gather more information. This helped him feel he was being heard, and allowed him to clarify his situation.
    3. Frame the Issue – I recapped what I was hearing about the cause of the challenge Barry shared and explained our mentoring process, asking if that seemed like a useful and appropriate solution, and what concerns Barry had about it. I shared a couple of cases where mentoring has helped other clients in similar situations. This helped Barry to know that I really could help him.
    4. Envision an Outcome – I continued with the cases, explaining how they turned out and followed with what the outcome could be for Barry’s situation. Now, Barry could see a possible outcome that would be beneficial to him. I suggested we try out mentoring on a small scale, as part of the work we were already doing.
    5. Commit – Barry agreed to have us provide the limited mentoring services to get his team through immediate deliverables.

    Building trust, and a reputation as a trusted advisor, is a key to long-term, productive relationships. What are some ways you already use these steps to build trust with your key stakeholders and partners? What is one step in the trust process you plan to work on enhancing this month?

    From Ambiguity to Clarity in Three Easy Steps

    As instructional designers, we often confront ambiguity when we take on a new project, especially when working with a stakeholder who has already created, the process, tool, or content. It can be overwhelming to achieve clarity – to get our arms around the purpose of the proposed change, impact on performers and the organization, which tools are in place to support the change, and sometimes even to understand the processes and content well enough to work our “magic.”

    Of course, ambiguity can be experienced in many areas, not just instructional design. For example, there’s often confusion in learning a new skill or job, assuming management of a group or project, or even starting a new hobby, like the genealogy research I just got involved with.

    So, you want to know how to get from ambiguity to clarity in three easy steps? First…

    …Well, really did you think it was that easy? This is a skill that, like so many others, takes a lot of practice, some solid fortitude, and trust in the process. I can’t deliver three easy steps to you, but I can offer three considerations to help you through. Let’s start with….

    1. Trust the Process

    It can be hard to “let go” and allow the process to work for us. But work for us it will. If left to its own devices, the brain will devise strategies to clarify its thoughts, and one of these main strategies is creating categories.

    A team of researchers led by the Ruhm University Bochum found that people create and place information in different categories to make sense of the world. “Thinking in categories or pigeonholing helps our brain in bringing order into a constantly changing world and it reduces the information load,” wrote the researchers.

    So, allow yourself time for clarity to emerge– sleep on it, meditate, do some yoga, or go for a run or walk – and your brain will take over. You might experience a number of “aha” moments – feel the satisfaction as these occur!

    2. Ask questions

    Particularly in situations where we are not the expert, we can’t expect that we’ll just know information or what’s in the head of our stakeholder. After doing our preliminary research, the only way to get solid information is by asking for it. Common questions for use in many situations (training or otherwise) are:

    • What is the goal of this effort? What do you hope will change?
    • Why is that important to you? To the organization?
    • Who will be impacted by this? How? What happens if they don’t get on board with the changes?
    • Is there a glossary or list of abbreviations, acronyms, and definitions (…so I can get up to speed on the subject quickly)?
    • What is the current/proposed process or workflow?
    • What do you mean by [fill in the blank]?

    That last question is intended to prevent you from making assumptions. The stakeholder might speak as though you should know everything she knows, but that’s unrealistic and sometimes you need to just ask. Sometimes I find this question actually causes the stakeholder to rethink her own assumptions.

    3. Draw it out

    Create your own picture of how you understand the situation. This could be a flowchart, diagram, or other image; high-level project plan; or a draft course outline. In doing this, you’ll identify areas for which you need more information, areas you thought were clear to you but are still ambiguous, and things you believe are accurate.

    Then review this picture or plan with your stakeholder, who can fill in the blanks, clarify ambiguities, and confirm or correct what’s left. She might even identify points you totally missed, or facts that she took for granted and didn’t think to mention to you.

    So, while those three techniques are not necessarily “easy,” I hope they will help. The important thing is to realize that many new projects will have ambiguities. If everything were so clear and obvious, life would be so much easier. And probably a lot less interesting.

    Warming Up with an Icebreaker

    Would an experienced runner set off from a marathon starting line without warming up? No! A world class athlete takes time to prepare for a race, and often goes through the paces of a regime created by her running coach. She may run a short distance, then hold 30-second stretches. Her coach knows these energizing moves will get her muscles, and mind, prepared to run 26.2 miles.

    Similarly, a trainer or facilitator (the “running coach”) starts a training session with an energizer or icebreaker, an opening activity designed to limber up the learners’ “mental muscles” and help them prepare to learn.

    What are some effective ways to motivate learners? EnVision team members share their favorite icebreakers below.

    For Ginny Maglio, who delivers leadership curricula to EnVision’s clients, it’s all about sparking learner interest. One of Maglio’s favorite icebreakers involves none other than – LEGO® blocks. “Participants build something related to the course content,” Maglio says. “For example, in a program on how to build successful teams, participants are asked to build something that depicts their organization’s mission….short, simple engaging activities can be used very successfully to initiate learner interest.” When learners feel energetic, they’re also engaged in the course.

    Irene Stern Frielich, EnVision’s president, “breaks the ice” for learners in a different way. During learner introductions, she asks participants to share a fun thing they did over the weekend. This recollection, and the positive social vibes from sharing it, get learners in the frame of mind to think and process.

    Scientific research supports this tactic. In the article How Emotions Influence Learning and Memory Processes in the Brain, Dr. Shlomo Wagner found that “Different emotions cause the brain to work differently, in terms of cognitive processes such as learning and memory.” In his study, Dr. Wagner discovered that pleasant social encounters between rats caused the rodents to build memories, whereas negative emotions did not. It makes sense that when people, too, recall happy times, it puts them in a good mindset for learning.

    Paula Spizziri, an instructional designer with EnVision, ensures she starts a module with an icebreaker that takes a page from the playbook of the running coach. Spizziri asks the learners to engage in a brief spurt of physical activity, since exercise stimulates the brain. Or, she may prompt the learners in an exercise in which they take turns completing the sentence “I’m late because…” with a movie plot. The other learners then try to guess each film, and both actions spark the learners’ thinking.

    It’s clear that icebreakers that target both learners’ emotions and energy work. According to an article by Michael Higley on elearningindustry.com, “Appropriately framing a lesson with an icebreaker activity is a useful technique in establishing context in which new learning will take place,” Higley writes. “The initial experiences students have with any course establish the tone for future tasks.” So, a course’s eventual success can be traced, in part, to an icebreaker’s efficacy — just like stretching sets the stage for a great race.