Building Bridges

A Bird’s Eye View from the Belfry

We recently took an amazing vacation, which included a couple of days in Bruges. Bruges is a UNESCO world heritage site because of its original medieval architecture throughout the city. During our first day in the center of Bruges, we were a bit overwhelmed. There was so much activity — horses with their carriages and their passengers, tons of people walking about, all kinds of buildings linked by cobblestone pathways, cafes along the entire perimeter, and so many stores including multiple chocolate shops — how can one select? There were pathways leading out of the square to museums, lakes, the famous swans of Bruges, pubs, and more chocolate shops.

We were overwhelmed trying to figure out what to do first, until we decided to climb the Belfry of Bruges. If you’ve ever been there, or seen the movie In Bruges, you know what I am talking about. We climbed the 366 steps, which became progressively narrower, winding, and more treacherous. Finally, we reached the very top where we could take in the central market square of Bruges. We could see from up above all the horses with their carriages and their passengers; we could see, with help from our map, where that one most special chocolate shop was that we just had to visit. We could see the layout of all the cafes and choose the one we wished to sit at, near the building with the architecture we most wanted to explore after sipping a local beer.

What we really needed was this bird’s eye view, the big picture, to help us figure out the detailed picture. Of course from the belfry we couldn’t see the intricacies, we couldn’t experience the tastes and sounds and smells of the square, but we could determine the context so that when we sat down at our cafe we knew what we were looking at across the way.

Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Brügge (B), Belfort von Brügge -- 2018 -- 8611” / CC BY-SA4.0

The experiences that we immersed ourselves in were fabulous but overwhelming without a big picture first. In our case the belfry helped us do that. We also supplemented our overview with a walking tour. And then we spent the rest of the time diving into the experiences we had selected, with a better understanding of how each part fit into the greater whole of a bustling, beautiful city center.

Similarly, at the start of a training program we provide the big picture to help set context, so learners know where they are before beginning the learning experience itself.

Think about this for a minute. Say you’ve gone into a library you’ve never been in before and you are looking for a book. Do you go directly to it? Probably not, if you’re not familiar with this library. But you might look at a library directory to see how the books are organized, you might check the online card catalog, or you might ask for assistance. Once you have a basic idea of where your book is located, you can go find it.

Now think about a training program you’ve been in. Do you dive right into the details of the experience: how to do a quality check, how to hold a performance review conversation, how to administer an IV? Wouldn’t you rather have the stage set for you, so you can figure out how you see yourself in that situation? When we work with subject matter experts we often begin with questions such as: What is the goal? How will the target audience use this information? What gets in the way?

So, next time you are developing a presentation, course, or curriculum, take a trip up to the belfry. It may take extra effort to climb all those stairs, but that effort will pay off.