Ok, “highjacked” may be a little extreme. Maybe “I yielded the interviewer seat to a professional colleague so I could be the subject of the interview” is more like it.
You may have heard that I have a book coming out tomorrow.
At some point in 2011 I decided I wanted to write a book, but my writing was rusty. My 2012 New Years Resolution was to start a blog in hopes that I could knock off the writing rust while compiling some ideas about learning and development. Here we are, about 10 years after I had the urge to write a book. And in today’s Train Like You Listen episode, Sophie Oberstein (author of Troubleshooting for Trainers) spent some time grilling me about this book.
Today’s episode is a little longer than usual, so if you don’t have the time to listen to this witty back-and-forth between Sophie and I, then just trust me, my book is awesome and you ought to buy it!
I write that last arrogant suggestion in quasi-jest (if you think the book could be helpful to you as you put together your training programs, I’d love if you bought a copy!). I’d like to thank each and every one of you for taking some time out of your schedule to read my posts and listen to my podcasts each week, thank you for the likes and comments and shares. Thank you for the emails and direct messages you’ve sent. You make me feel like I have something to offer the learning and development community.
Now without further ado, this week’s podcast…
Transcript of the Conversation with Brian Washburn
Sophie Oberstein: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Sophie Oberstein, author of the book Troubleshooting for Trainers and I suppose you could say that I’ve hijacked the host role for today’s podcast.
As always, Train Like You Listen is sponsored by Soapbox, the world’s first and only rapid authoring tool for instructor-led training. With Soapbox you simply take five to ten minutes, enter a few pieces of information such as how long your presentation will be, how many people you expect to attend, your learning objectives and out pops a lesson plan for you with activities to engage your learners. For more information, visit Soapboxify.com.
Now, I’m very excited to introduce today’s guest. If you listen to this podcast, you may have heard of him. He’s one of the co-founders of Endurance Learning and his book, What’s Your Formula?: Combine Learning Elements for Impactful Training hits Amazon tomorrow. It’s Brian Washburn. Brian, thank you for joining us today as a guest.
Brian Washburn: Well, I’m excited to be here, Sophie. So, thank you for taking over the host role.
Sophie Oberstein: You’re welcome. I’m so excited to do this today. I was a guest on your podcast when my book came out last year and it was such a fun experience. So now, I get to ask you some questions about yours. As you know, your show starts with a topical six-word bio and this week the theme is: the writing process. So, my six word bio, to do with the writing process is “editing takes time and wastes paper”.
Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLING)
Sophie Oberstein: At least it wastes paper in the way that I do it. (CHUCKLING)
Brian Washburn: Yes.
Sophie Oberstein: I suppose others can do it on their computer screen. What about you? What’s your six-word bio?
Brian Washburn: “A children’s placement inspired my book”.
Sophie Oberstein: Yes. Yes, we’re going to get to that one I think in our first question. Actually, maybe I’ll revise my first question. Brian, how did a children’s placemat inspire your book?
The Inspiration Behind the Book What’s Your Formula?
Brian Washburn: Well, it’s funny because I was out with my oldest child. They were out of school randomly on a Thursday. I think it was between marking periods or something and we happened to go to lunch at a place called Lunchbox Laboratory. And this place had– the theme is, kind of, laboratory, right? A food laboratory and so they have all sorts of burgers. And when my oldest ordered their corn dogs that came on this placemat that had this periodic table of different elements of food. And so when I saw that and I was like, “Ooh, I like that”.
So, if you think of the periodic table that we’ve all studied in science class, you know, it’s organizing a bunch of different things that we find in nature and this placemat had a bunch of different food elements that you could put into your meal for a better experience. And I was thinking, “oh, what if we did something like that for training and training design”? And like in the periodic table in science class, you know, you have these things that are separated by solids, liquids and gases in their natural state and I started playing around with this concept for just training design and training experiences.
And so we also– for this periodic table that is the center of this book, What’s Your Formula?, the elements are also, kind of, classified by things like solid elements, like tools, either physical or digital that you’d use in training. Or liquids, so those can be practices that can change shape according to the vessel in which they’re poured and by vessel in training, we’re talking about organizations, right? So what fits for your organization? What practices, how do practices fit for your organization? Gas-like elements, so those are like theories and models and concepts. So similar to the air we breathe and we don’t think of the air that much, unless it’s taken away from us. And it’s the same thing with these gas-like elements, right? So these theories, things like adult learning or visual design, we don’t think much of them unless they’re not actually there. Radioactive elements, and we’ll talk about those a little bit more. And then interactive elements, so those could be like social media and digital platforms, mostly used for informal learning or follow-up. So that placemat that I saw in the restaurant kind of inspired all of these different ideas of how to classify and organize a bunch of elements for amazing learning experiences.
Sophie Oberstein: Well, I love it because it’s a story about how ideas are all around us and we can be inspired in all kinds of moments. And I also– just the way you just described that is so true to your book where you take what could be intimidating scientific concepts and make it so accessible. So thank you for that.
Brian Washburn: Yeah, no it’s fun.
Sophie Oberstein: Good. So yeah, I want to drill down to some of those elements specifically. I wanted to start by asking you, can you think about which is the most versatile element for training, meaning this is an element that can or should be mixed with most of the other elements or in most of your projects.
Which Is The Most Versatile Element for Training?
Brian Washburn: You know that’s a really interesting question and the title of the book is What’s Your Formula?, right? So the idea here is that you can find and combine a number of these different elements to create the learning experience that you need. And when I was playing around with different formulas, there were some elements that started to pop up over and over again, right? So if you think of adult learning theory, that is something that really does need to be put into most learning experiences, if not all learning experiences that we’re putting together for colleagues or for clients or for whatever it might be.
Another one, and I can’t– you asked for the most, right, but I can’t give just one. Just because there’s, you know, you have these different types of elements, right? So you have solids, you have gas-like elements, things like that and I think that there are some important, really important ones in each of these different areas. Learning objectives is another one. It’s really tough to create an effective learning experience, until you know what people should be able to do by the end of it. And that could go for e-learning, for instructor-led training, for informal learning, making sure that there’s a clear plan of what people should be able to do by the end of it.
A lesson plan is another one and that’s for mostly instructor-lead, you know, just making sure that you can map out the sequence and flow so it’s logical and also, so you can see how much time. Sometimes when people start to say, “oh, I’ll do this activity here and this activity there”. They don’t think of how much time it takes to give instructions and then let people do the activity and then to debrief the activity. When you’re thinking of e-learning, the equivalent– and it’s not an element on the periodic table, but the equivalent would be a storyboard, right? So making sure, again, that you’ve mapped things out before you start to program.
And then supervisor support might be one that people don’t think of very much, but it is a really key element for accountability and for helping the learning to even be focused, you know, “Why am I taking this e-learning? Why am I going through this learning experience?” If the supervisor can say, “Hey, Brian. This is an area where you might want to focus in order to improve what you’re doing, or if you want to get ahead, you know, you want to get that promotion, this is an area that you really should focus on”. And so, supervisors can oftentimes, if they’re involved in helping somebody figure out what the learning experience should be, it’s really helpful either to help focus the attention so the learners get what they need to, or, you know, so that the learning can even stick, you know, follow up and accountability, things like that.
Sophie Oberstein: Yeah, that sticking I was just going to get to. It’s been shown in research that the number one factor in determining whether learning is going to stick after the event is manager support.
Brian Washburn: Absolutely.
Sophie Oberstein: I love that that’s one of the elements you decided was, kind of, foundational to most of the projects you are going to put together.
Brian Washburn: Yeah.
Sophie Oberstein: Well, let me flip the question and ask about whether there is any potentially toxic element that you should use in training only with caution, with the goggles on?
What Are the Potentially Toxic Elements in the Periodic Table of Amazing Learning Elements?
Brian Washburn: (LAUGHING) That’s a really good question. I think it’s a really important question. And actually there’s an entire category of these elements that’s devoted to that question, the radioactive elements. Things like lecture and PowerPoint and subject matter experts and handouts and smile sheets and icebreakers and e-learning. Even– you know, e-learning is so commonly used and it can really be toxic if it’s not well done, right? If it’s click-through e-learning, right? If it’s compulsory training that people simply kind of click next, next, next, in order to get that completion.
Other things, shiny objects like augmented reality or activities like role play or games or even data, any of those can be potentially toxic, you know, going to your question because each of those elements that I just rattled off has a time and place. It can yield amazing results and learning experiences but there needs to be intention and attention in terms of how we use these.
So I call these radioactive elements, not because they’re toxic in nature, but because they can be super powerful if they’re harnessed, right? If they’re just thrown in there, like a role play: “Hey, why don’t we just do a role play here?” A lot of times, it’s just too easy to do that without a clear definition of what the roles should be. Does each person in the role play really understand what they’re supposed to be doing? The challenges that the antagonist should throw at the protagonist, things like that. Is there an observation sheet so that the people who are watching, you know, can give specific feedback as opposed to just whatever, kind of, crosses their mind? Right? So, if we don’t give things like this intention and attention, you know, role-plays can resolve themselves happily in 30 seconds. E-learning can just be clicked through. The smile sheets, that level one post-training evaluation, doesn’t give us useful information. Or it gives us information that we think is useful and then we use it incorrectly, right? Games, something else, you know, if those aren’t done with intention and attention, you know they can be too complex, people can be more concerned about winning than they are about the learning that should come out of the game.
So on the other side, these have the potential to make for amazing learning experiences if they’re done right. So, games can really be a way to find out about team dynamics. They can be a way to help people problem solve and work on those skills, real life scenarios and skills that they might otherwise not have in a training setting. So, while there’s a potential for toxicity with some of these elements, there’s also the potential for huge rewards.
Sophie Oberstein: Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with them in and of themselves. It’s just that you need to handle them with care.
Brian Washburn: Yeah, absolutely.
Sophie Oberstein: So one of the things I love about your book is that it asks people to get out of a rut and think about each training as a new and unique experiment. And you encourage people to do this even if their experiment might blow up, so I’m sure people are hesitant to blow things up. How can you help them get more comfortable with that?
How Can Trainers Get More Comfortable with Experimenting?
Brian Washburn: Yeah and that’s a tough one, right? So, I go back to my own experience in the Peace Corps when I was trying to learn how to milk a cow and the first time I did it, it was a disaster. It was an awful experience for me. It was an awful experience for the cow. No milk was coming out. And then when I tried to do it again, with another farmer, the farmer when I told him about my first experience, he just laughed and he said, “There’s always a first time, right?” There’s always a first time, meaning when we try something new, it very rarely goes well the first time.
Now, if you think of the training that we do, it is easy for us as designers to get into a routine that is just, kind of, it makes it too easy. And the learners can feel that. We can get bored with our own stuff. And so, I think that each time that we develop a learning experience, we need to figure out: what’s the best way to accomplish these goals? And sometimes it can be a simple solution, but sometimes it can be a more fun and creative solution. But the more fun and creativity I think that we put into something that’s going to be engaging and effective, the more risk we’re taking. And nobody likes to fail. It’s uncomfortable. It’s embarrassing. It just sucks. I’ve created games and tried to pilot them in front of an audience and it’s flopped. And so then the question becomes, what can we learn from that? And how can I try to avoid that experience in the future? And so, if we’re trying to innovate and create a more powerful learning experience, experimenting is going to be part of that process.
Tips for Experimenting with Training Design
And so, just a few tips when experimenting, you know, start, if possible, with something that’s low stakes, right? So getting something that’s low stakes, if it’s possible, get some feedback, whether it’s from trusted colleagues or friends, maybe a trusted stakeholder along the way. And then, if possible, find a friendly audience to do a dry run. Try to work out the kinks there. You know, let people be brutally honest, and just be ready for it. Be prepared for brutal honesty because again, the first time when we try something, it’s not going to be perfect. If it’s perfect the first time, then we spent way too much, kind of, you know, kind of trying to refine it before putting it in front of people. Because oftentimes what we have in our minds is going to work, won’t work necessarily for everyone. And then iterate as needed. You know, pilot with a real audience, hopefully a small scale, hopefully from the audience knowing it’s been tested. And also know that a pilot by definition is a place to try things out and still be able to make adjustments. Or make major overhauls, if necessary. That’s why we pilot things. So, I wouldn’t say experiment with abandon. I think experiment with intention and find out ways that you can come up with new ideas using some of these elements that maybe you’ve never tried before.
Sophie Oberstein: Yeah, that just ties to some best practices in the field about continual development and just trying something new each time you design or each time you deliver. Just put one new thing in and see how it goes and get feedback on that.
Brian Washburn: Yeah, absolutely, so there’s, you know, 51 elements in the periodic table and so hopefully people find something new, right? And something that’s going to be interesting and helpful when they’re putting together their program.
Sophie Oberstein: So you’ve got an element called Mr. Sketch Markers and another called flip chart. Do elements have to be high tech or cutting edge to be effective? And what’s the most high-tech or cutting edge element you do talk about in the book?
Brian Washburn: Yeah. Clearly there’s a number of elements that are, you know, what we would call “old school,” right? The key to finding your formula for anyone is to identify what you’re trying to accomplish and then choosing those elements that fit the needs for your program and for your audience. Certain audiences will appreciate bringing in things like augmented reality and playing around with that. Other audiences might appreciate just kind of keeping it simple with flip chart and markers. And so I think that, you know, your question is do they have to be high-tech or cutting edge? Absolutely not. I think that they need to fit your purpose and fit your audience. You may have the same purpose with different audiences and you might need to try some different things in there.
When it comes to the most high-tech or cutting edge element, you know, there are some things in here, like augmented reality, that’s picked up steam over the past several years. Soapbox was something that just launched in 2019 to help people put together presentations faster for instructor-led things, you know, a sequence and flow of activities. I’m sure that there’s other tools out there that people are using and they aren’t part of this table that are much more cutting edge than what you see here. The thing about all of this and what I’m trying to get at, you know, this periodic table isn’t meant to be exhaustive in terms of everything that’s available. But, you know, just find the right mix, the right mix of solids, of liquid, of gas-like elements. And if high-tech and cutting edge is what you want and what meets the needs of your learning objectives and your audience, then by all means, please experiment with them. And also keep in mind that sometimes flip chart and markers can be the best and simplest solution.
Sophie Oberstein: Yeah, it’s about letting the content and the audience drive the delivery, as opposed to letting, kind of, a preferred platform or a preferred delivery technique drive how you deliver the content.
Brian Washburn: Absolutely.
Sophie Oberstein: One more question for you: your periodic table includes tools and ideas that aren’t linked to an actual live training event, like spaced learning and coaching. Can you say more about why trainers should focus on aspects that surround training and not just on the training events themselves?
Training and Learning Is More Than Just an Event
Brian Washburn: Yeah and it’s interesting, you mentioned spaced learning in there and that can be, you know, kind of, intentional design for training. But, you know, when you take a look at the periodic table in totality, The Center for Creative Leadership came out with a model called the 70 / 20 / 10 model and that was specifically how to develop leadership skills. But I think that people have used that as transferable in terms of just how people develop the skills. And that model says that about 10% of our development, and these are kind of rough numbers. Keep in mind, this is a model, it’s not prescriptive. But about 10% of our development comes from formal training. So training events, conferences or workshops, things like that, e-learning. And while they can cost a lot of money and it’s where we in the L&D space spend a lot of our time, you know, these really constitute a very small percentage of how we grow our own skillsets.
About 20% of our development in that 70 / 20 / 10 model comes from supportive relationships. So coaches, mentors, supervisors, peers, you know, that supervisor support, things like that. Those are things we still need to keep in mind. Those are influencing how we learn and grow and so they really should be front of mind, which is why we put some of these things into the periodic table.
And then about 70% of our development comes through informal means. So stretch assignments, on-the-job training, YouTube videos. And so we see an element about collaborative file sharing, things like SharePoint, things like that could be helpful. Google is another one of these elements just because it’s such an important search tool. YouTube. You know, we’re looking things up and watching videos. So, there’s a lot of different ways that we learn and the more we keep these in mind, I think the more effective our training programs and our results are gonna be.
Sophie Oberstein: Yeah, I mean in a world where resources and tools are available to people 24/7, we can’t just think about learning as an event. We have to think about the whole experience.
Brian Washburn: Yep, absolutely.
Get to Know Brian Washburn
Sophie Oberstein: Alright, so we are going to try out one of your speed rounds. I’ve changed up a couple of questions, but you’ll find some of them similar to those that you ask your guests about. So, let’s start with what other periodic tables would you like to see created, for instance, how about a periodic table of ice cream flavors?
Brian Washburn: (LAUGHING) I’d love that. You know that– yes, so, and actually it’s funny because I don’t know if it’s just because I’m paying more attention because we created this periodic table or if it’s just kind of all the rage these days. But I’ve seen recently one for gamification, which is really cool, the elements of gamification. I’ve seen another one that the E-Learning Brothers created for instructional design.
Where I really think there’s a void when it comes to periodic tables, might be things such as the greatest Buffalo Bills players of all time, by position and era.
Sophie Oberstein: (CHUCKLING)
Brian Washburn: Or, you know, maybe and on a more serious side, maybe elements of a successful relationship. So, you know, whether we’re talking about work relationships or romantic relationships or relationships with our children. My guess is that there’s a bunch of elements that go into relationships, which are complex things, that can probably be classified and organized in some way that would be really helpful for us just to keep in mind, on a day-to-day basis.
Sophie Oberstein: Oh, I want to write that book with you.
Brian Washburn: (CHUCKING)
Sophie Oberstein: Alright. Which new tool did you discover in researching your book that you’d recommend?
Brian Washburn: Yeah, you know, maybe I’ll go with element number 38, which is text tools. It’s something that I saw at a conference once, but I’ve not used them, you know, using text messaging for learning. It was pretty interesting to research some of the use cases of how this is being used. SMS-based training is bigger outside of the US, especially in the developing world where not everyone has access to a computer or the internet. But many people have access to texting. And so it’s a tool that’s being used to deliver content over large distances in the developing world.
But even here in the US, it’s a strategy that some organizations use for learning boosts or post-training follow up because people are more likely to respond or engage with a text message than they would be, you know, email surveys and things like that. So I think that’s kind of a cool one.
Sophie Oberstein: Cool. And what are you reading these days?
Brian Washburn: I just have not had a ton of time to open a book recently, so I’m trying to keep current just with my issues of TD Magazine.
Sophie Oberstein: It’s a good one. If you’re going to have limited time to focus, focus on the ATD content, the blogs, the articles. You conceived your book idea while looking at a placemat in a restaurant that serves corn dogs. What is actually your favorite restaurant food?
Brian Washburn: Yeah. I’m going to cheat on this one as well, similar to what, you know, what’s the most important element earlier. Just because it depends on my mood, right? I had just moved into a place in Seattle, in this neighborhood where there’s so many good restaurants. There is an awesome Greek place. There’s an awesome Mexican place, but not just Mexican. It’s Oaxacan and has a really good mole. You know a little while back, I just discovered this barbecue place here in Seattle. Pizza is always a go-to. Or burger, a good burger, but especially good burgers that have a place that has good fries, I think is really important too, so maybe those would be just a couple off the top of my head.
Sophie Oberstein: (CHUCKLING) Thank you for that. And let’s wrap up with, if you would please share with your listeners how they can find your book and any other services you’re offering right now that you’d like to make a shameless plug for.
Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLING) Yes, the shameless plug question, I can’t wait. So if you go to Amazon and look up Brian Washburn, or What’s Your Formula?, you’ll find the book there. Place your pre-order. It’ll be up and running and sent out very soon. And if you like the book, I’d love it if you could give it a review. Also bigger picture, Endurance Learning, you know, we’re at the ready, if you ever have some sort of need when it comes to your own training program. So classroom training, virtual training, e-learning development, we’re just a click away. If you go to our blog, which is TrainLikeaChampion.blog, and click on the work with us button at the top of the page, we’ll be happy to have some conversations with you.
Sophie Oberstein: Fantastic, Brian, thanks for letting me take over your show today. It was so great to talk to you again. And for everyone who’s listening, thank you so much for listening to another episode of Train Like You LIsten, which you can find on Spotify, on Apple, on iHeart radio or wherever you get your podcasts. If you happen to like what you heard, give us a like, and that’s how other people will find us as well.
Until next time, happy training everyone.
This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox. Sign up today for a free demo below.