36 Strategies to Improve your Learning, Elearning or Change Management Project

Interesting conversations

In the course of my life I have found myself engaged in many interesting conversations. I once stood on the deck of a burning ship, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, in pitch darkness, wondering whether I’d see the dawn, and the woman standing next to me asked, “Do you think I should go back downstairs to change my shoes?” (For the record, I said “No”.)

I remember an engaging conversation with a Lebanese casino manager who told me to stop wasting my life traveling the world and to “Go home and get some experience!” From his point of view, world travel did not constitute real experience.

And I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a professor of politics who asked me, “What’s the purpose of your essay: advocacy or analysis?” That question and those two ideas completely changed the way I thought about my studies.

So, what’s the lesson here? It’s simple, really. Each of us experiences thousands of conversations. Some are strange. Some are mundane. Some are interesting. But they all present opportunities to learn new ways of seeing the world – new points of view.

Points of view

Points of view can be implicit in the circumstances, like the shoe lady’s priorities. They can be explicit, like the casino manager’s concern with experience. Or they can be emphasized, like the professor’s question about advocacy versus analysis.

The point is that through the situations and conversations we experience, we collect powerful ideas. These mental models empower us to think more effectively – sometimes critically, sometimes creatively. And by improving our thinking we improve the way we perform our work and the way we tackle life’s daily challenges.

The slow mastery of new models through direct experience and conversation is analogous to the evolution of maritime maps. Initially our mental models, like the maps of old, are vague and inaccurate. Over time, if we invest in learning, our models become more complete and more accurate, like the maps of today. (Of course our models are still only representations. As Alfred Korzybski noted, “The map is not the territory.”) So, what’s the implication?

Context

Every person brings a unique context to every conversation – a unique set of perspectives and a unique collection of facts they’re aware of. Three people can experience the same event and yet interpret it in utterly different ways, based on the mental models they’ve absorbed over the course of their lives.

“What has all this got to do with elearning or change management?” you may be asking.

Everything!

In our work as instructional designers in the past, and in our projects now at Cognician, we’ve focused on the importance of context, concepts and questions. Our mission has been to combine this holy trinity to help people change their behavior and improve performance. Our experience is that thought provoking questions help you apply powerful concepts to your unique context immediately, dramatically reducing the time to performance, and increasing knowledge transfer.

This work began more than two decades ago. Over the years we’ve collected many ideas that have helped us to change the thinking of more than half a million people. And we would like to share these ideas with our colleagues in the fields of learning, elearning and change management.

Is your current learning project perfect? Was your recent elearning initiative a great success? How about your last change management project? Did it go off without a hitch? If so, you’ve no doubt mastered many of the strategies we’ve identified below.

But what if you’re like most of our clients and partners? At Cognician we’ve had the good fortune of working with great people in great companies for the past five years. HR Directors. Organizational Directors. L&D Managers. Talent Managers. Instructional Designers. What makes these folks great? They’re always looking for new ways to improve their projects.

So we’ve decided to share a few of the ideas we’ve learned from the work we’ve done with our clients. Well, not just a few ideas. 36, to be precise. Over the next 36 days we’re going to write a blog post on each of these strategies. 36 strategies to improve learning, elearning and change management projects in 36 days. Along with writing the 36 strategies we’re designing a deck of 36 strategy cards. A card deck is a great way to share these strategies with project designers and developers. Cards can radically improve brainstorming during the design and development phases of your project. Let us know if you’d like to hear when the deck is ready.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Here are the 36 strategies grouped into another holy trinity: methodology, content and logistics. (We’ll expand on the Methodology-Content-Logistics model during the weeks ahead).

In this “36 strategies in 36 days” blog series we’ll see how these strategies appear in our everyday lives. We’ll reference some of the research backing these ideas. And we’ll look at examples of each of these strategies from our own work.


Methodology

1. Develop thinking

We can’t help ourselves: we’re always thinking. Our thinking can be random and undisciplined, like a toddler splashing about in water. It can be focused and streamlined like an Olympic medallist. Or it can be anywhere in between. Whatever it may be, the fact is that our thinking largely determines our behavior. So, if you want to change the way people perform, you need to change the way they think. What kind of thinking habits in your people are limiting performance gains? And what kind of thinking will yield performance excellence?

2. Pose Questions

What’s your favorite movie? If you know your favorite, the title pops into your thoughts instantly. If you’re undecided your mind begins looking for an answer instantly. You can’t help it. Questions engage the mind at a deep level. And the mind responds immediately. Powerful, thought provoking questions help us think and perform in powerful ways. Use questions in your next learning or change project and see the difference! What thought-provoking questions can you have people engage with to promote reflection and improve their performance?

3. Get people talking

What’s the most interesting conversation you can remember having? Was it with a friend or romantic partner? Or perhaps a teacher or coach? Conversation is one of our most natural ways of learning. Of course, conversations fall on a continuum from trivial to profound. Their impact depends on the kinds of questions we ask each other. The point is that we’re accustomed to learning through dialogue. The more interesting the conversation, the more memorable it is. In your elearning or change project, how can you engage people in conversations to improve performance?

4. Lead ideas out

“What will your verse be?” asks Mr Keating in a great scene from the movie Dead Poets Society. Keating is not the kind of teacher who tries to drill content into students. What separates him from his fellow teachers is that he puts his students first. He doesn’t start with the content in the text book. In fact he gets his students to rip out the introduction. Instead he starts with what’s interesting to his students, and gets them to discover and learn through self-expression. How can you design interesting elearning or change experiences that lead ideas out rather than load them in?

5. Shift mental models

What’s your mental model for a child’s party? Probably it includes a theme, venue, invitations, food, cake, soft drinks, decorations, gift bags, etc. What about your mental models for leadership, employee engagement, customer service or continuous improvement? Everyone has different mental models at different levels of maturity. Focusing on mental models is a great way to achieve behavior change. What mental models driving current behavior are limiting performance? And what mental models will help your people to improve performance?

6. Encourage self-explanation

Did you know that self-explanation is capable of achieving incredible learning gains? Yup, up to two standard deviations above traditional classroom learning gains. When prompted to self-explain the meaning of their subject matter, people amplify their learning. Questions like “Could you clarify?,” “Why?,” “How?,” “Any thoughts on that?” help you to digest content. They allow you to absorb new ideas and build on existing knowledge. What can you do to encourage self-explanation as part of your elearning or change initiative?

7. Leverage personal context

Every person’s context is unique. We each carry a unique piece to solve the puzzle of performance improvement. This is often neglected in learning and change projects. Consider two operators on the same production line. Or two sales reps for the same product. They all have tacit knowledge unique to their own circumstances. Starting with this unique context can radically improve how you approach learning and change management. How can you use everyone’s unique, individual context as a springboard for your elearning or change management project?

8. Invite imagination

“Imagination is more important than knowledge” said Einstein, “For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” In the rush to convey information to people in a learning or change project, we often overlook the power of imagination. Inviting people to imagine solutions to problems or explore various “what if?” scenarios can be surprisingly transformative. How can you engage the imagination of your people in your elearning or change management project?

9. Avoid dissociation

Seymour Papert describes dissociated learning as “learning that takes place in relative separation from other kinds of activities, mental and physical.” It’s abstract learning with no meaningful connections to personal experience, and you can’t really do anything with it right now. Odorless, tasteless. Colorless. Like water. Papert argues that this is why many children struggle with math. But it’s also the reason why many corporate learning and change projects fail. What can you do in your elearning or change management project to avoid the problem of dissociation?

10. Use principles of influence to shift behavior

In his book Influence: The Science of Persuasion Robert Cialdini outlines six principles of ethical persuasion. These are: reciprocity, scarcity, liking, authority, social proof and commitment/consistency. It’s amazing how powerful these principles are. It’s even more amazing how seldom they’re used in learning and change projects. You can use these ideas to change behavior at scale, and improve individual, team and organizational results. Which principles of influence can you use to shift behavior in your project and improve performance?

11. Provide performance support

Have you read The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande? It shows how checklists can bring about striking improvements in medicine, disaster recovery and businesses of all kinds. But checklists are just one example of many different kinds of job aid or performance support. Too often we think of “training” as the solution to an organizational challenge when performance support may well be a much better approach.**_What performance support tools can you provide in your elearning or change management project?_**

12. Personalize it

Apple Inc has long understood the value of personalization. The early iMacs came in several colors. The iPod nano too. With the Apple Watch the company is taking this is to a whole new level with a selection of models and switchable straps. What’s the relevance for learning and change? People engage when you appeal to their personal interests. Don’t just let them choose a username and avatar. Connect the learning to personal knowledge and preferences. In what ways can you make your elearning or change management project more personalized?

Content

13. Use powerful concepts

Powerful concepts amplify our thinking. They change the way we see the world. They change our expectations and our self-belief. And they have explanatory power. They help us make sense of the world. Instead of building up a curriculum of topics for your learning or change project, invest time looking for the most powerful ideas that will really change the way people think and behave. Then build your project around these powerful ideas. What powerful concepts can you introduce to unlock new ways of thinking, new behavior and better performance?

14. Make it sticky

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath describe a heuristic for creating “sticky” content that makes it easy to retain: SUCCES. Make it simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and story-based. We’re programmed to remember scenarios that follow this formula and the best examples are urban myths. Like the man who woke up in a hotel room in a bath of ice to find his abdomen stitched up and a kidney removed. False? Definitely. Memorable? Absolutely! How can you apply the rules of stickiness to your elearning or change management project?

15. Honor personal choices

You choose whom to date and whom to marry, what kind of career to pursue, where to live, what kind of food to eat, and how you spend your leisure time. The benefits are obvious: we feel that we’re in control, that we’re the masters of our own fate. We feel self-ownership. The same benefits of personal choice in these other areas apply also to learning and change projects. When you give people choices within a project you see greater levels of engagement. How can you give people more personal choices in your elearning or change management project?

16. Build motivation

In learning and change management, motivation is more than half the battle. When you’re unmotivated even simple content is daunting. Conversely, when you’re motivated to understand and learn, you’ll go to extraordinary lengths to internalize even the most difficult content. Often “motivation” is tacked on at the beginning of a project. But if you truly understand the motivating factors in your people you can make these foundational to the whole initiative. What different strategies can you use to build motivation throughout your project?

17. Highlight the purpose

“There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” So says Simon Sink, author of Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Highlighting the purpose of your learning or change project means inspiring people on a journey towards an aspirational end point. People want to feel a sense of belonging and purpose. But far too often this is completely neglected. How can you more effectively emphasize the purpose – the why – of your elearning or change management project?

18. Adopt different points of view

Can you multiply 20 by 4? Of course! How about XX by IV? With Roman numerals – a different representation system – the task is a lot harder! Turns out the symbols we choose to use can either mute or amplify our thinking. Computer scientist Alan Kay popularized this idea by saying “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points.” Take this further by choosing different points of view from which to see your work: the POV of a scientist, an engineer, an artist, a politician, an athlete, a clown, etc. What points of view can you adopt to see your project from different angles?

19. Use stories to inspire change

“Once upon a time…” Something happens to us when we hear stories. We feel a warm sense of comfort knowing we’re about to be entertained. But neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak has proven that there’s more to it than that. His experiments have shown that when we hear stories our brains synthesize oxytocin, a powerful neurochemical, which is strongly related to feelings of trust. Telling stories helps you to develop deep connections with people and trust. What springboard stories can you include in your elearning or change management project?

20. Emphasize the important

It’s a hot afternoon. The training room aircon is on the blink and it’s the post-lunch graveyard shift. The next presenter steps up to speak and his first slide looks like a page of classified ads. The audience sounds a collective groan. While content should be thorough, there’s nearly always a few core take-aways around which everything else orbits. Figure out what they are, and make it easy for your audience to identify them. What must you do to make sure you emphasize the most important/significant points in your elearning or change management project?

21. Highlight the trade-offs

Our lives are one trade-off after another. Working overtime may bring more income, but it comes at the cost of time with family. If you have only one hour of leisure do you spend it exercising or reading? “There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs,” argues economist Thomas Sowell. This is a powerful idea you can use to enrich learning and change projects. It helps people more fully appreciate the value of the project for themselves, their team and their organization. What can you do to help people grasp the trade-offs in their situation?

22. Encourage a sense of play

Frank Lloyd Wright changed the field of architecture forever by designing buildings of such boldness and beauty, that they still look modern a century later. It all started with play. Wright’s mother allowed him to draw on his walls. And she gave him a set of wooden toys called Froebel Gifts, which helped to develop his sense of shapes and space. According to author Diane Ackerman, “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” Where in your elearning or change management project can you encourage people to adopt a sense of play?

23. Add a dash of delight

The delightful moments in our lives are the ones we remember. They usually happen because we are surprised by getting out a lot more than we put in. The hotel upgrade to the room with the ocean view. The online voucher from your favorite store, just for being a great customer. These are the things you share with friends when they ask, “What’s up?” Why shouldn’t learning and change be that way? Wouldn’t your project benefit from a little word of mouth? Where and how can you add a dash of delight into your elearning or change management project?

24. Use concrete examples

How would you teach calculus to a group of 16 year olds? How about plotting the trajectory of a space shuttle heading for orbit? Or calculating some of the immense forces it encounters on re-entry? Yet most learners are introduced to this beautiful mathematical tool through the squeaky scribble of an equation on a blackboard. Stretch yourself to find the most evocative examples and counterexamples to engage your audience. Where in your elearning or change management project can you provide concrete examples and counterexamples of your subject?

Logistics

25. Invest in the logistics of learning

Imagine a brand new computer factory with all the latest equipment for production, packaging and distribution. This factory can operate effectively only if its owners manage the logistics effectively. This means co-ordinating the technology a
d the people who use it. The same applies to less tangible initiatives like learning and change projects. Champions, buddies, teams and more help sustain engagement and buzz. How will you invest in the logistics of learning – co-ordinating people and technologies – to drive engagement and sustain change?

26. Use iteration

Ever watched a child learning to walk? It’s a fascinating example of a basic principle of learning (and success) that we might call “successive approximation”. Or, to put it another way, you’ve got to learn to crawl before you can walk. Our first attempts seldom achieve perfection. But with trial and error comes learning and development. This is the model to follow for effective learning and change projects. What must you do to make sure you’re using an iterative approach in the design, development and deployment of your elearning or change management project?

27. Measure effectiveness

You wake up in the morning and step on a scale. Your daughter has a fever and you grab a thermometer. Your car tells you the temperature inside and out. We live in a world of instant measurements which help us cope. But when it comes to learning and change, we face an interesting challenge. As Einstein put it, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Where in your project can you improve how you measure results, outcomes, performance, comprehension, decision-making and learner perceptions?

28. Encourage responsibility

Sci-fi author Terry Pratchett once said, “I didn’t go to university. Didn’t even finish A-levels. But I have sympathy for those who did.” Pratchett is one of the world’s many genius autodidacts: folks who teach themselves. This is the attitude we need to inspire in others. Successful learning happens when you’re the driver, not a passenger. Develop this attitude in your people and your learning/change projects will shift into top gear! How can you encourage people to take responsibility for their own learning, change and performance improvement?

29. Respect the learner

When we’re going through a learning or change program, how often are we treated like products on a factory production line? Wouldn’t it be great if we could dispense with the factory model of learning? Imagine that we treated people who are on a learning or change program more like guests at a five star hotel or great restaurant? How would this change how we welcome people and provide an experience they want to tell their friends and family about? In what ways are you disrespecting learners? What can you do to show greater trust in your learners?

30. Apply systems thinking

Stand anywhere and look up at sun shining through the clouds, or down at the waves crashing on a beach. These are complex interconnected systems, bursting with energy and continually in motion. Systems thinking helps us understands how systems work and change over time. It’s a collection of powerful ideas you can use in the design, development and deployment of learning and change projects. Where can you use systems thinking to help shift behavior in your elearning or change management project and achieve performance gains?

31. Launch with a bang

“Twelve, eleven, ten, nine… Ignition sequence starts… Six, five, four, three, two, one, zero… All engines running! Lift off! We have a lift off!” Listen to the countdown of Apollo 11 and you can hear the emotion in Jack King’s voice – the “Voice of Apollo”. Such is the energy of a launch event. No rocket reaches orbit without a successful launch. Similarly, learning and change projects benefit from the power of a launch event. How can you launch your elearning or change project to catch attention, convey significance, set expectations and build commitment from all?

32. Prepare a peak

Have you ever walked a long and exhausting trail to the peak of a hillside or the top of a mountain? If so you’ll know the satisfaction of reaching the peak. The walk up anticipates the peak, and the majestic view is your reward. The walk down is completely different. Quieter. More reflective. You can design your learning and change projects to follow a similar arc, with the peak experience as the high point in the middle of the journey. What peak experience can you include in your elearning or change project, which will be a memorable milestone for all participants?

33. End on a high

Every F1 Grand Prix is a dramatic story. Exciting starts with world champions on pole. Thrilling moments when drivers try overtaking. Tense pitstops and shocking accidents. And when drivers finally cross the finish line the checkered flag is waved marking the final chapter of the race. Then, for the winners, it’s the podium and a shower of champagne. Let this be the benchmark for how to end your learning/change projects! How will you end your elearning or change project so that it ends on a high note, leaving participants with a positive memory?

34. Build on strengths

When last did you see a fish climbing a tree, a chimpanzee flying or a giraffe burrowing underground? In the natural world animals hardly ever behave contrary to their strengths. But in our lives we often find ourselves, our friends and our colleagues mismatched with work. Pay attention to the strengths of the team members in your learning or change project. Let everyone play to their strengths and you’ll see the benefits. In what ways can you leverage your team’s individual strengths to drive your elearning or change management project?

35. Show social norms

When was the last time you wore your pajamas to the cinema? Never done that? That’s not surprising. We tend to behave according to real or perceived social norms. We usually don’t like to behave in ways that go against what’s socially acceptable. This is a powerful force in learning and change. We can encourage behavior change by showing on a dashboard where we align with social norms and where not. What measures of engagement and what competencies can you track so that individuals can see their results relative to the social norm?

36. Seek creative improvements

Creativity gave us the Eiffel Tower, Citizen Kane and “Great Balls of Fire!” Yet learning and change management projects are often mundane and ordinary. It doesn’t have to be this way. The first step to bringing creativity to your projects is choosing to do so! Once you’ve made that choice you can seek unexpected, elegant and memorable approaches that will grab attention and create excitement. What creative – unexpected, original and valuable – approaches can you take in your elearning or change management project to drive performance?


Over the days ahead we’re going to elaborate on these strategies. As we explore each strategy we’ll add examples. We’ll add detail. Some strategies may seem banal. Creativity? Really? Of course we need to be creative! And others are just common sense. “Make it memorable?” Well, duh!

But here’s the thing… If we don’t decide during the design and development process to make something as memorable as we can, and if we don’t double-check at the end of these phases whether our project actually is memorable, there’s a fair chance we’ll miss an improvement opportunity.

Therein lies the value of treating these strategies as distinct points of view. In the rush to design, deliver and deploy a project, it’s all too easy to neglect many of these perspectives. But when we stop and consciously choose how next to think about our projects, when we choose a different point of view from which to see our projects, we become enormously empowered. We can quickly recognize where we’ve neglected valuable perspectives, and where there are great opportunities for improvement.

Every person brings a unique context to every conversation. The ideas above are strategies we have used and still use continually, to produce award-winning elearning and change management solutions for our clients and partners. But we know we’re not the only kids on the block! We’re part of a thriving community of talented service providers and management consultants. What strategies or perspectives do you use to improve your learning, elearning or change management projects?