When Training Goes Too Far

Too Far - Embarass

It was a tight deadline.  We worked through several nights to complete it. $1.6 million had been invested in the curriculum.  Finally, we piloted it.  Confusion reigned.  It was a disaster.

We were developing a training curriculum that had a lot of moving parts.  The focus was on foster care, specifically how to work with teens on the verge of turning 18 and about to “age out” of a system they may have been involved in for more than half their lives.  We wanted to create a culminating activity to simulate the pressure you might feel if you were thrust into this type of situation: the clock is ticking, these teens have peer pressure, academic pressure, economic stress, the idea that they’ll be on their own without a safety net, healthcare gaps… the list goes on.

We came up with a board game intending to throw all of these things at our learners.  Instead of a conventional 6-sided die, we introduced 12- and 18- and 24-sided dice.  Depending on choices that people made in the game, they could march forward on the board or be sent backward.  There were a lot of rules.  And they were timed.

If we wanted to make our learners feel like teenagers about to age out of foster care – confused, frustrated, annoyed – we succeeded.  But our learning objectives revolved around preparing adults to be able to better work with these youth.  And this was a train-the-trainer session, so these confused, frustrated, annoyed adults were going to be asked to go back to their offices to train others on how to do this culminating activity.  When we evaluated the pilot program later, almost every trainer informed us that they either simplified the game or dropped it all together.

In the grand scheme of things, this training activity was just a one-hour activity in a day-and-a-half training program.  Overall, the training program was well-received, but this component was designed to be the final assessment – the culminating activity to determine whether the learners could put everything together.  We went too far in our design, it turned out to be way too confusing to be useful.

We could have simply given the learners a final exam.  Or we could have played Jeopardy.  Or perhaps we could have done a final role play.  Instead, took a chance, we rolled the (18-sided) dice.  I have a feeling a lot of instructional designers crave to be engaging and creative and come up with original and fun ideas.  Often this leads to amazing training experiences.  And sometimes those cravings produce a flop.  And more often than not, they flop because we overthink things, get a little too cute and make things too complex.  One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received from my father (and I obviously don’t heed his wise counsel often enough) is that you don’t need to bring in an elephant to teach the color gray.

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I Definitely Screwed Up In 2012… Did You?

We spend a lot of time calculating the number of hours we spend in formal training events.  Social media, coaching and mentoring are hot topics when it comes to informal learning.  But what about learning from our mistakes?  It seems to me there is a lot of anxiety and fear around owning and learning from mistakes.  I know that some of my most powerful and longest-lasting learning experiences come from mistakes I’ve made.   

A Mistake of Legendary Proportions

Legend has it that there was an IBM executive who once made a multi-million dollar mistake.  Realizing what he had done, he approached the CEO, Thomas Watson Jr., and offered his resignation.  Watson refused to fire him, explaining that he had just invested millions of dollars on his education, so why would he fire him now?  This episode was highlighted in Roy Saunderson’s excellent column from Training magazine about learning from our mistakes.

Be All That You Can Be: Reflecting on Mistakes

As long as learning occurs, mistakes can be an extremely valuable component of informal learning in an organization.  In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge (the man who coined the term “learning organization”) suggests individuals and organizations can take a page out of the way the U.S. Army continues to grow and learn from mistakes that occur in both training and on the battlefield: the after action review (AAR).  An AAR basically asks what lessons can be taken away from the gap between what you intended to have take place and what actually took place.

An After Action Review in Action

As 2012 draws to a close, I confess that I’ve made a number of mistakes.  The fact that I rarely take the time to reflect on what can be learned from these errors compounds my mistakes.  Following is one of my bigger mistakes of the year and what I’m taking away from it. 

My Intention: Last spring, I was the project manager for a major in-person event that would bring together dozens of eye care professionals from eye banks across India.  Since they would be stuck in meeting rooms for two days (as opposed to restoring sight to the blind, per their normal schedule), I wanted to be sure this was a good use of their time.  I gave lesson plan templates to everyone scheduled to present.  I implored my colleagues to plan sessions that would engage our audience, making sure that value would be taken away from the meeting.

The Actual Results: Post-event feedback forms indicated that our participants seemed to enjoy the session, but I felt we could have done better. For the most part, PowerPoint ruled the two day meeting.  Jet-lagged, sleep deprived and frustrated, I spent significant amounts of time voicing my disappointment with my teammates; I just didn’t feel there was much participant engagement.  My teammates were taken aback by my disappointment and felt some of my comments to them were out of line.

Lessons Learned

  1. Take drugs.  It’s now clear that I need to get a prescription for Ambien.  Jetlag and sleep deprivation suppress my generally calm outward demeanor and remove the filter from my generally diplomatic communication style.  I felt it was a badge of honor to not need a pill in order to sleep after traveling halfway around the world.  There is nothing honorable about walking around in a sleep-deprived, grumpy mood. 
  2. Plan smarter. I used time during our regularly scheduled team meetings to ensure the project was on track – primarily in a big picture sense.  Lesson plans were submitted for review and I made comments, but I never followed up to make sure lesson plans had been revised.  In hindsight, I should have checked in individually with teammates since they were generally unfamiliar with lesson plans, instructional design principles or adult learning theory. 
  3. Chill. Perhaps the most important take-away of this episode is that holding others to high standards is perfectly fine, but it must be done with grace.

Four months later, I actually took the second lesson (plan smarter) to heart in planning another meeting in India and the training delivery was a smashing success.  When I return in March for our next major meeting, I will do so with Ambien in hand.  I’m still working on the “chill” part.

What Did You Learn in 2012?

Enough about me, how about you?  When you think of a mistake from this year, what was your intended outcome?  What actually happened?  What have you been able to learn from it?  Is there something others might be able to learn from it?  The comment section is waiting.  Are you willing to share a little about your mistake-based education from 2012?