How ruthless can a learning and development professional be?


Happy New Year!

In my last post from 2016 I shared my one-word resolution that I’m hoping can center me as I try to make my work bigger and better in 2017: ruthless. As in: ruthless prioritization.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been asked to design several training programs in which the clients want big things achieved… and they’ve also given very limited time in which to achieve these things. My biggest challenge was to figure out how to deliver what the clients wanted while at the same time ensuring the training programs were what I’d consider to be fundamentally sound.  

One specific example was that I was asked to deliver a presentation skills training for an audience of people that I’d consider part-time trainers (people who present from time to time, but have no background in instructional design nor do they have a ton of time to spend on their training sessions or presentations because they already have a full-time job doing technical stuff).

Any time I’m asked to design a train the trainer program or a presentation skills workshop, my knee-jerk reaction is to make sure that at the very least the audience gets to spend a few minutes with basic principles of adult learning. For me, these principles are the key to helping people unlock the secrets for how to engage adults in any sort of presentation or training program.

On this most recent project, I of course injected some adult learning theory. Then my client came back and asked me to cut more time out of an already lean presentation skills program.

With a heavy heart I opened the lesson plan, highlighted a 45-minute section on adult learning theory… and hit delete.

I re-read the lesson plan. To my surprise, it still seemed like it would be quite effective because of the other activities and content. As I reflected on this, it was liberating to move away from the need to always carve out a block of time to cover adult learning theory basics.

Do I now think we should do away with introducing people to principles of adult learning in any circumstance? No. At the same time I do think there’s a hierarchy of how content and theory should be prioritized:

Priority #1: People need time to practice. If you’re pinched for time, jettison the content and theory and just let people practice, and then insert feedback (that may include theory) into a debrief.

Priority #2: Content without the jargon. Jargon isn’t very memorable unless you’re going to use it every day. My part-time trainer audience, for example, will be able to easily remember a set of questions they should be asking:

  • What is it that your audience doesn’t currently know?
  • Why will your audience be glad they know it?
  • Where can your audience learn more about this topic after your presentation?

(Full disclosure: these questions were inspired by this 20-minute video of Phil Waknell sharing his thoughts on how to deliver an effective presentation.)

Priority #3: Theory, if you have time (and if your learners will ever use it). People do like to know why things are generally done in a certain way. A basic understanding of theory or research or data that underlies why things like “relevant content” or “adult learners have prior experiences that form the lens through which they look at new content” are essential can be helpful.

As learning and development professionals who are truly invested and passionate about sound, engaging learning experiences, sometimes we fall under “the curse of knowledge” and we insist that everyone else knows (and loves) all of the finer details and theory, when in actuality all they need is a boost in their skill set. Ruthless prioritization is essential if we want happy clients and the most effective professional development experiences possible.

What do you think? Should theory be a higher priority than “time for practice” and “content without jargon”?

7 thoughts on “How ruthless can a learning and development professional be?

  1. Wow. I get caught in this trap all the time. I’ve started rephrasing the question to myself (should it stay or should it go?) by asserting, “yes, I want them to know this . . . but must they know it NOW?”

    • Two things here Karen: 1) I love the idea of asking “…but MUST they know it NOW?” (and the cousin to this question: What are they going to DO with it NOT?) and 2) Thanks so much for getting the “Should I stay or should I go” song stuck in my head!

  2. Good article Brain – there’s likely research out there to back up your prioritization as well (that I need to do a better job of disseminating among my organization). Maybe those technical presenters will be encouraged to research adult learning on their own even!

    • A) I love being called “Brain” because it makes me sound smarter, so thank you Rachel.
      B) It’s quite possible there is research out there – my own little hierarchy is inspired by the idea of accelerated learning.
      C) The presentation is on Wednesday and I have a feeling that some of the more experienced presenters could be interested in doing some more research on their own (which is why there will be a handout directing them to additional articles and research)!

  3. Great Article, Brian. I especially like your 3 questions under Priority #2. I agree with you, practice is way more important. Theory can be sent out online prior to training.

    • Thanks Krista – yes! The theory is definitely something that can be sent in advance and/or something that can be given as a handout or sent a few days/weeks out as a follow-up/reminder to keep the session fresh on their minds.

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