Telling Ain’t Training – Pt 2: Blame Isn’t the Solution

You’re Really Good at That! (Or How You Become a Trainer)

When I took my first position as a trainer over 10 years ago, I had no idea how complex it would be. In hindsight I can see how ill-prepared I was to create meaningful trainings. This isn’t to say they were terrible or ineffective, or that I wasn’t good at my job. It does mean that I had a lot to learn. Like many of you, my first job as a trainer resulted from being identified as an ‘expert’ in what I did. The criteria for this varies, but in most cases, your manager is impressed by the work you’re doing or you’ve been doing it so long that you know all the ins and outs of a system, process or business. In some industries you’re called a subject matter expert (SME). In others, your title might include Lead, Head or another similar attribute. These are words that signal that you’re well-versed in your craft. By being labeled any of these, you’ve been selected to pass your knowledge and methods on to the ‘next generation’ or maybe even your peers.

I’m Good at My Job, I Swear

You’re excited and you have tons of ideas, tips and tricks to share. You sit down and think about all of the things that make you good at your job. The final outcome is a training outline or version 1 of a training manual. Armed with your knowledge and any class resources you’ve put together, you deliver your first training session and…you bomb.
Your audience is confused, you’re frustrated and everyone is resentful of what they perceive as time wasted.
You take a moment to reflect, attempting to figure out what went wrong. I’ve been there, believe me. In these situations, our minds can start to use blame as a way to rationalize everything.
Maybe I’m not that good at my job or perhaps Simon just wasn’t trying hard enough. Our brains lead us to believe that somewhere along the lines, someone messed up.
This isn’t entirely untrue, but it assumes that the failure was a result of a person, rather than a system. If we remove you (the person) and the learners as the root cause of the failure, then you are left with content and delivery. Let’s start by looking at the three critical components of communication when designed a training.

Where’s the Breakdown?

The first two, defined by Stolovitch and Keeps as declarative and procedural knowledge, constitute the majority of your content. The third is the idea of Adult Learning principles and it deals with how you choose to relay those first two components to your audience.
  • Procedural: You process customer returns everyday for 2 years. It’s second nature to key in code 555 in order to bypass the three standard welcome screens. It takes nothing at all to complete the entire logging and refund event in 3 minutes. This is procedural knowledge. You can think of it as all of the manual tasks you can complete without thinking about it. For me, a good example is knitting a washcloth.

Take a moment and think about a task that you can do without putting too much thought into it. This excludes things like breathing and blinking!

  • Declarative: Now if I asked you to talk me through, how accurate do you think your first try will be? How long to do you think it will take you to describe it so that I can replicate the process flawlessly? The is called declarative knowledge.
Many experts (like you and me) rely on procedural knowledge to do our jobs. Translating procedural knowledge into declarative knowledge often breaks down, which can lead to that familiar feeling of failure for both parties.
To further complicate this, in trying to teach others to work the way that we work, we sometimes forget that adults have their own feelings and experiences related to learning new things. We can’t just say ‘do it exactly this’ and not expect push back, especially from those who have already done the job before.

 How Can I Improve My Trainings?

  • According to the authors of Telling Ain’t Training, an effective way to set the stage for your trainings is to address positive and negative experiences related to the topic at the start of the session. This will:
    • Diffuse a situation by acknowledging past experiences of the participants and
    • Allow you to gauge what participants know and how they approach problem solving.
  • Establish the why and how of the trainings. As discussed in other posts, relevance is extremely important to adult learners. They need to know why they are learning this content and how it can be immediately applied to make their jobs easier and/or more efficient. You also want to discuss how they’ll be learning to do these things.
  • Here’s where the Adult Learning Principles come in:
    • Integrate real world scenarios as a way to demonstrate practical application to your learners. This also allows them to participate and share their experiences in similar situations.
    • Include a resource list that participants can refer back to. This can include detailed (or simplified!) explanations of content covered during the course, or further reading related to the topic.
    • Consider Task Mapping – During an Instructional Design course I took in graduate school, I chose to create a training for managers based on their job description. The posting included things like ‘budgeting’ but because many people are promoted into the position, it’s not an inherent skill. By task mapping, I was able to uncover assumed prerequisite knowledge and build from that level before moving onto budgeting; for example, an understanding of financial terminology, a intermediate grasp of Excel and formulas and understanding of profit margins.

The next time you design a training, clearly define what you need to teach your learners and then use the suggestions above to decide how you’re going to do it. Throughout the process, be conscious of what you’re doing vs what you’re saying when outlining or developing content. Read it out loud to yourself and, if possible, ask someone else (a non-SME) to follow along. If they can’t, rework the areas where they get stuck until you have a resource that is thorough but easy to understand and follow along.

Stay tuned for my next post which explores the best ways to build a strong foundation for all your training needs!

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