Written by: Scott Provence
There is a game I sometimes play to warm up a room full of trainees. Everyone stands in a circle and secretly picks someone to be their “bodyguard,” and another person to be their “assassin.” People then move freely about the room, trying to stand so that their secret bodyguard is between them and their assassin.
Of course, because everyone has picked different assassins and bodyguards, the room is in a constant state of flux. One person’s movement will cause a ripple effect of other movements as people scramble to get behind their own unnamed protector.
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For a long time, I saw this as simply a nice way to energize people before a training session. Recently, I read about how this game is also a great example of a complex system. A system is considered “complex” when its various parts are in a constant state of interaction, emergence, and unpredictable cause and effect. An ant colony is a complex system. The Earth’s climate is a complex system. And in a digital and globalized economy, more and more companies are complex systems.
This fact didn’t bother me much until I realized there was something wrong with the way I was training employees. I’d start them out with my Assassins mini-game, which embodied the real-life complexities and interactions of a modern workforce. But then I’d make them sit back down so I could spend hours going over linear training scenarios, predictable job aids, and learning objectives with clearly defined cause-and-effects. Ultimately, it didn’t matter how much I gamified these objectives or how directly I could connect these sessions to bottom-line results. The reality was that by the time employees left my training room, something about their complex work environment had likely already changed.
“Best practice is, by definition, past practice,” write Dave Snowden and Mary Boone.  This feels eerily similar to the definition of insanity usually attributed to Albert Einstein: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. After all, the only reason we would do the same thing over and over again is if we truly believed it was the best way.
Are the historic “best practices” of training and learning design slowly driving us insane? Instructional Systems Design (ISD) has been around since the 1950s. The ADDIE model (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate) came out in the 1990s.  Even the Agile manifesto is over 20 years old.  No wonder things feel a little crazy today. We’re advising complex, 21st-century companies using 20th-century instructional design methods.
I was recently examining my own “best practices” when a client approached me with a training request. Their stakeholders had identified 20 day-to-day tasks they wanted for a role-specific training course. My historical approach would have been to connect this list of tasks to business outcomes, then work backwards to identify performance gaps, associated behavioral skills, and finally measurable learning objectives.
Now, I couldn’t help but liken this approach to someone standing in the same spot and carefully mapping the distance between themselves and their bodyguard. Meanwhile, their ever-moving assassin was stalking up on them from behind. I realized that this client needed a different approach.
So I taught their first role-related pilot class with nothing more than that list of 20 tasks. I passed out the list to trainees and asked, “Which of these tasks do you think should be standardized into a best practice?” I also asked them, “Based on what you know about this role, what key tasks do you think have been left out?”
After the dust settled from this initial activity, trainees had tripled their own task list from, 20 key behaviors and responsibilities to nearly 60. And here was the most surprising thing: When we tallied up the percent of these tasks that trainees believed should be standardized, the average response was way lower than I expected: just 35%.
Based on my traditional ADDIE- and instructional-design way of thinking, I assumed that people would have ideally wanted 100% of their job to be standardized. After all, if I could wave a magic wand and give you a step-by-step document to follow for every single task you do at work, why wouldn’t you take it?
Because that’s not what today’s worker wants, and that’s not what today’s complex companies require. Far better than many of us in HR and L&D, employees are recognizing that creativity and non-linear thinking are essential in today’s workforce. Our training and support programs need to adjust accordingly.
I now have a new and completely different kind of needs analysis I perform with clients and prospects. It involves a lot more bottom-up thinking and a lot more back-and-forth communication. It’s a living document. Its ever-changing nature is not a weakness but a strength. And yes, we still have time at the end of these sessions for a quick game.
 Snowden D. J. and Boone M. E. (2007) ‘A leader’s framework for decision making’, Harvard Business Review, November, pp. 1-8.