Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Kindness is at the Heart of Effective Training Design

How do you approach teaching adults a skill?  Pick what's most important:

a. Make sure I know who the learners are.
b. Make sure I thoroughly grasp the skill myself.
c. Make sure I understand how the learners need to use the skill.
d. Make sure I apply the principles of adult learning.

Okay, pencils down.  If you didn't pick option a, my condolences.  You're not going to get optimal results -- even if you do a bang-up job with b, c and d.

The truth is, unless you understand the head and heart of your learner, you can't develop a truly compelling training course.  There will always be some measure of disconnect, or even resistance, on the part of the learner.  Knowing your learner is the most important thing to do before you do anything else, not only because it prevents assumptions, but also because it enables you to care. And if there's one thing that gives learners an inner glow of engagement, it's the perception that their needs have been considered and respected.

"That's just mollycoddling," you might say.  (Well honestly I don't know many people who would actually say THAT word, but you get my drift,)  "If it's something they have to learn for their job," you might continue, "then they just need to learn it, and deal with it. Why should I have to get into their heads?"

Last Friday a real-live Hollywood rescue scene took place 17 floors above the pavement of Manhattan.  On the side of a tall building, a scaffolding motor failed, causing a metal platform with three workers inside to pitch 75 degrees. The men tumbled to the bottom edge of the platform, where they dangled and screamed for help.

The 911 call came in at 10:16 am.  NYPD Emergency Service Unit Detective James Coll got to the scene and rappelled down the side of the building, reaching the men at 10:19.  One worker's hands were already numb from holding on, and he said he thought he was going to fall.  Coll quickly attached his harness to the man, saving his life.  Firefighters had burst open windows by then, and everyone was hauled to safety by 10:24.

Wow.  But what interests me most about this story is what Detective Coll said afterwards:  "I wasn't worried.  This is when the training kicks in.  All we want to do is help someone in need and just take the steps to save them."

For the men and women of the NYPD Emergency Service Unit, their deepest heartfelt goal is to help people in need.  That's what they signed up for.  They put up with a lot of crap, just so they can save a life now and then.  They know training equips them to do what they want to do.  Without it, they'd be powerless to achieve their own self-described  best destiny: that of being a helper to others.  With it, they spring into action, bypassing fear because their training has given them focus.

As training developers, you and I can't look at the material we need to train from a safe, objective, bystander's perspective.   We need to absorb the point of view of that learner who we're sending out onto the building facade.  We need to be able to link the skill we're teaching to an ultimate goal that's of value to them -- that feeds their identity -- that gives them purpose.  Only then can we frame the skill to fit that learner's highest motivation, and organize it into steps that make the most sense for its execution under real on-the-job circumstances.

This is why I say that the heart of effective training design is being kind.  Putting yourself in the learner's place, and keeping their interests foremost, is not only the right thing to do for humanitarian reasons -- ultimately it's also the smartest way to meet the training's business objectives.

Have you gotten out on the ledge with your learner yet?  If not, how can you discover what's important to them, and fold it into your training design?


  1. Beth, what a breath of fresh air. I train people every week on complicated machinery and software as well as write the courseware (currently 3 different training manuals). I can relate and absolutely agree with the points you make. Keep up the good work. I will visit often. A former colleague, Pat Horowitz

    1. Pat, Welcome to Remarkable Messaging! It's great to reconnect with you, and thanks for being my first comment poster. I appreciate the validation that I'm on the right track with my points -- coming from you, it's all the more awesome.

      You sound quite busy in your current messaging gig. The work sounds intense, but I bet you bring a good amount of diner waitress strategy to everything you do. I'm sure your learners are quite blessed to have you at the front of the room (or on the other end of the monitor).

      I intend to write a post specifically about manuals in the near future... so stay tuned! - - Beth

    2. Thanks Beth, I am always reading the blogs, sometimes very late at night. I look forward to the manual writing piece. Take care...