Planning vs. Execution Mindsets in Learning Solution Development

Let’s start with a story. Many years ago now as I was beginning both my managerial and instructional design journey in my mid-twenties, I was having a discussion with a director of a company about the approach we should be taking to the learning content to meet need of an end customer.

As a young and idealistic soul I was positing that what we needed to be doing was starting our content using a scientific approach, one which I’d learned was the ‘correct way’ to do learning, from being a teacher, which placed learners firmly at the heart of the learning, planning and execution of a lesson. I was making the case for how I’d gone about the learning content design, considering planning of the course content, assessment design etc. It was then that the Director said the following thing:

“It’s all well and good to develop content in the right way, but that takes time. This is a business, so we need to do things at minimum cost, so long as we have a product, it’ll be enough, nobody cares about the academic bit.

Whilst I still don’t fully agree with the statement, in it was a kernel of value and wisdom; the operational realities we must get to grips with if we are to succeed and yes the harsh financial truths as well. What he was getting at is something we often group under the ‘agile’ mindset now of ‘doing’ first, failing fast and reworking it later, but this was ‘pre agile/MVP’ days!

What I was faced with at the time though was a pragmatic, motivational and yes, for me at the time an ethical conundrum. Was what I doing just ‘pumping a product out’, or was it actually going to make a difference to the end learning state and performance on the ground? (More on assessment and evaluation in later postings!)

This could be framed as a planning vs. execution mindset difference. Note that when I say ‘planning’ here I’m talking about planning in an instructional sense, that involves that application of instructional theory and principles, not planning as it pertains to project management or other business activity.

In L&D I think it’s reasonably safe to say that the majority of us get into the trade because we want to make a difference to people’s lives and to make organisations a better place to be. But we are faced with the above conundrum time and again particularly when it comes to time pressures and the reactive spaces we find ourselves in to deliver training. Learning takes time, not just to develop, but to implement and allow people the space to grow in order to show measurable change. (note this is different to a ‘learning instance’ where a piece of information is retained. More on that in other articles!). Without knowing what’s changed, how can we know if we are making a difference? And importantly for the business….adding value?

Likewise , given my educational background, planning and preparation (lesson planning, curriculum planning, knowing your instructional models, audience prior knowledge etc.) is a ground-level baseline (traditionally) of how a job is to be done, I’ve seen the effects of poorly planned lessons, training programs or curricula first hand (sometimes my own hand!). Or even worse I’ve designed things I suspect may not have filled the end need but the brief was set externally, the product is then delivered into the ether, and I never know for sure if they did the job or not!

But, that said, I’ve also seen where an ‘action orientation’ can be immensely valuable, when done correctly. Knowing what I know now, about agile iteration/product & project management, I could have easily adjusted to the Director’s ask and provided value straight away, whilst not doing away with the fundamentals that make for good learning design and yes, that critical information collection. Ah…20-20 hindsight! I do believe that there is space for both attitudes to co-exist. It doesn’t have to be an ‘or’ decision.

I’ve explored this conceptual landscape for a while, and have some general conclusions which I’d like to share:

1: Theories need validation. Many learning and development theories whilst excellent models are just that…models! The landscape is so broad and cross-disciplinary that NO one theory can encompass everything. It’s critical that before you apply it you understand its background and inherent limitations. There is an excellent section in many Wikipedia entries for various theories, called ‘criticism of the theory’ (see this one on Blooms). It’s usually at the bottom and often contains some pretty significant bombshells that call into question the validity or empirical baselines of the model itself! Of course there’s value in the model still, I love a good model. Perhaps what I’m saying is we should not be too dogmatic in their application and if you see someone touting ‘this approach’ or ‘that approach’ then it’s a good idea to explore why they hold that view.

2. Execution can only outclass up-front planning so long as there’s follow up on whether it did the job. The advice I would have offered to my younger self is ‘we will look at the theory in the evidence we gather about our initial approach’. In this way I would mollify the idealist, yet remaining pragmatic at the same time. We often talk about ‘agile delivery’ in learning, but agile and indeed any delivery-first approach ONLY works when there is an adequate feedback mechanism to collect end user data on the product, without that you’re Butch without the Sundance, or Laurel without the Hardy.

3. Content supports learning, it doesn’t provide it. This one is the simplest of all, but is one that is often missed in the zeitgeist of training delivery in large organisations. Good, well planned and executed content is really valuable, certainly. But we should also be cautious that we look longitudinally beyond the event into the before and after pictures that we are taking a snapshot of to ensure that not only content, but our master plan and approach meets all needs, not just operational but non-operational as well. The honey trap of ‘elearning’ is testiment to this, how often do we push an eLearning module and say ‘learning complete’, when really, deep down inside we know that it is not?

I will explore this idea, amongst others as I publish other articles, in the meantime, do get in touch with thoughts, feelings or abuse (if you feel it necessary!)


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