How to Deflate Even the Best Designed Training Program


Last week I had an opportunity to help plan a training program for an organization with a large presence across India. I was the only training professional sitting around the table. I was joined by several high ranking officials and some operations staff.

At the beginning of the meeting, I was asked to share my thoughts about good training design. With a flare of theatricality, I took out two balloons and I asked a colleague to inflate the first one.

I held the balloon in my hand, but I did not tie it. I explained that this balloon represented so many training programs. It took some work to inflate. It looked nice. It looked festive. Maybe it even looked fun. Nice, festive and fun are all goals of a balloon, so it looks like we’ve achieved what we wanted, right?

Then I let go of the balloon and it shot up, twisting and turning and floating around the conference room. For a brief moment, I wondered if this was a dignified enough monologue with such high ranking officials in the room, but I pressed ahead.

In the end, all that balloon had was a bunch of hot air and now it’s gone and it’s not really nice or festive or fun. It didn’t really achieve anything.

Then I asked my colleague to inflate the second balloon. I tied it.

This balloon represented what we should aspire to, I said. All of the hard work of inflating the balloon is sustained. We had a plan (to blow up the balloon), we executed the plan for maximum sustainability (we tied it) and if we were to come back tomorrow (ie: follow-up later down the road), we’d still be able to see an inflated balloon!

This is how training programs need to be. Good design. Good execution. And measurable, sustainable results.

Looking around the room, reactions ranged from mild amusement to head nodding to one person asking the question: “Ok, I like it… so how do we keep the balloon inflated?”

In that moment, I felt like a genius. I didn’t just talk about adult learning and training design. I showed what it was. I reached not just for the rational minds of my audience, but also their hearts. And they were in love.

Until halfway through the meeting.

I had my back turned as I wrote something on the white board. And then I heard the sound that everyone who has an older sibling has heard at least once in their lives. It was the distinctive sound of my prized possession, my balloon, being slowly deflated.

My head whipped around. I saw who did it. It was one of the executives! He smiled sheepishly. The room was tense. Everyone wondered what my next move would be.

“That,” I began. “That just shows us that my great opening balloon metaphor wasn’t yet complete. Even if we have amazing design and amazing delivery and amazing follow-up… one senior official or executive can come by on a whim and untie the balloon, letting all the air out and killing any long term impact of the program.”

Without manager (or director or executive) support, even the most well-designed training program is just a bunch of hot air.


6 thoughts on “How to Deflate Even the Best Designed Training Program

  1. So many metaphors with this one. Trying to keep multiple balloons in the air at one time! If management mandated the training and the trainer knows that another training is not going to fix the problem, then the training balloon is just filled with “hot air”.

      • Honestly, Peter, this balloon idea was a bit off the cuff to begin with, but I’m not sure the meeting would have flowed as well without having set the tone with the balloons in the beginning.

        Not only was it a metaphor, but it also helped break the ice and demonstrate that this was a different sort of meeting and a different way of thinking.

        It was a lot of fun!

    • Yes Priscilla – this one was filled with metaphors. It was actually a very fun way to start a meeting, because we had a physical reminder of what we were trying to accomplish (well, we had that reminder until someone deflated the second balloon!).

      I may have to use props more often, even if only in a working meeting (as opposed to a training session)!

    • Thanks Marian! The reaction? It ranged from mild amusement to hearty laughter. I think it was a combination of how surprisingly quick I said something (I surprised myself… I’m not usually that quick) and the fact that, while there were some high powered people in the room, there was very little ego. So the group appreciated the point.

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