Thursday, October 15, 2020

Psychological Safety: Critical for Learning?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 has been a year of uncertainty for many professionals. People were suddenly shifted to working from home and many in-person activities within the training and education field were hastily adapted into virtual ones. Other organizations were asking employees to continue working in what was now a risky physical environment. All of these unexpected changes raised concerns and fears related to psychological safety.

In the October 2020 The Learning Guild Psychological Safety: Critical for Learning?, I define psychological safety and examine its impact on both individual learners and groups. Key areas covered include simulations, facilitator skills, feedback, collaborative work, and employee engagement. See how building and fostering a psychologically safe work environment can help encourage and motivate learners at all levels.

The report is free with a free membership to The Learning Guild

Thursday, September 10, 2020

What Works - and What Doesn't - In Diversity Training

 Organizations implement diversity initiatives for a number of reasons, including a desire to increase representation, decrease workplace conflicts, and teach different individuals how to work together effectively.

This new research report from The Learning Guild, What Works, and What Doesn’t, in Diversity Trainingassesses literature on diversity training, outlining key points and offers insight into which strategies lead to either the success or failure. You will get a glimpse into the benefits of developing a successful diversity training program within your organization, which approaches you should consider when planning your efforts, and which tactics you should avoid.

The report is available for free with a free membership to The Learning Guild

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Evidence-Based Design for Virtual Classroom Experiences

In watching events of 2020 unfold I've seen many organizations make a sudden shift from face-to-face training to the virtual classroom. There's lots of talk about the technology -- security concerns, the unending challenges of the mute button, even how to create Zoom backgrounds -- but I see much less about ways of making the actual instruction better. 

In the August research report from The Learning Guild I offer some suggestions for this based on some sound principles for design as well as suggestions for helping facilitators sharpen their skills, or develop new ones, for the new environment.  Evidence-Based Design for Virtual Classroom Experiences  is available for free download with a free membership to The Learning Guild. 

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Less Content, More Learner: An Overview of Learning Experience Design (LxD)

This month's research report from The Learning Guild is Less Content, More Learner: An Overview of Learning Experience Design (LxD)Where traditional approaches to workplace learning tend to focus on building knowledge and/or skills, learning experience design is concerned with additional areas, such as shoring up learner confidence and increasing motivation to learn. This new report provides an overview of this exciting approach to workplace learning and suggestions for mapping learner experiences and journeys. 

This report is available for free with a free membership to The Learning Guild. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Designing for Behavior Change: A Conversation with Julie Dirksen

In this video research report, Julie Dirksen provides an in-depth look at Susan Michie et al.’s research on how to understand and support behavior change to improve job performance. Dirksen shares common problems that arise when designing learning experiences for changing behaviors and explores how you can use the Susan Michie et al.’s COM-B model to find solutions.  The report can be accessed via a free membership to The Learning Guild. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

More Similar than Different: What the Research Says About Generations in the Workplace


The topic of “generations” in the workplace has become popular among L&D professionals. Stereotypes exist regarding generational differences surrounding values, work behaviors, and preferences in supervision. These perceived differences impact the modern workplace in everything from hiring practices to office design. This new report from The Learning Guild uses academic literature and empirical research to analyze whether these generational differences are as important as people believe them to be and provides recommendations for handling these differences moving forward. More Similar than Different: What the Research Says About Generations in the Workplace is available for free download with a free membership to The Learning Guild. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Let Me Google That for You (LMGTFY)


Let Me Google That for You (LMGTFY), just out from The Learning Guild, gives me the opportunity to respond to Guild member questions that require answers but not full-length reports. Does everybody really have a mobile phone? What is the optimal length for a training video? Does eLearning really save time? These are just a few of the questions that Jane Bozarth is frequently asked by Guild members and L&D professionals. In Let Me Google That for You (LMGTFY), she shares her responses to these questions and gives insight on topics that range from definitions to instructional design terms to references on empirical data regarding the effectiveness of eLearning.

The report can be downloaded for free with a free membership to The Learning Guild. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019


There's really no blog post here. I'm not one of those people who pretend to engage in Twitter conversations while only looking for ways to spam everyone with an old post. Worst offenders: The ones who manipulate a conversation around to an excuse to blogdrop. 

Urban Dictionary: Blogportunist: "Someone, who in the midst of an online conversation, shares one of their own blog posts usually in an effort to show how smart they are or let people know they’ve already had this idea or as a form of self promotion (marketing)."

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Tracy Parish: Actual Rockstar

I'm just home from DevLearn, always a fun, exciting event. This year was especially meaningful for me as I watched one of my best friends, Tracy Parish, achieve well-deserved stardom as she won not just the annual shirt design contest but also the top prize in the 71-entry Demofest event, "Best Mobile Solution" category.

I'm guessing I've known Tracy for upwards of a decade, first online as #lrnchat participants (we're both moderators now) and later as conference buddies. In that time I've watched her emerge as a leader in our industry, offering practical real-world help for those working on limited budgets through her dazzling aggregation of low-cost tools and products, to helping lead the Toronto Storyline user community, to helping run the Canadian eLearning Conference. She's a stellar example of a pragmatic practitioner, always happy to help and to show and share her work. It has been fun and energizing watching her evolution and I think I was as thrilled as she was when she took the stage to receive her award.

Here's one of my own favorite photos, taken the day we snuck away from a conference to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  I love Tracy dearly, and am proud of her both as a colleague and a friend. I look forward to seeing what she does next.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

iSpring 9! Lots of New Features

I always enjoy hearing from my friends at iSpring, who apart from being excellent humans with a great product are fun companions at minigolf. So I was delighted to get an email asking me to take a look at the newest release, iSpring9. 

Usually when a tool gets a refresh there are a few updates, but this new version of iSpring has advanced the product by leaps and bounds.  My three favorite changes:

1. New Video Editor

In this release iSpring greatly expanded the capability of the earlier, basic iSpring Cam. The newly-renamed iSpring Cam Pro includes a video editor that provides annotation/captioning as well as robust features such as adding in other video and audio elements, so you could have, say, timed text steps or a talking head video alongside an animation. 

2. LOTS more Interactions
This release offers a much-larger array of 12 interactions, including easy-to-animate charts. 
I was always a fan of iSpring's "timeline" interaction and am pleased to see the accordion available now as well.  

3. Drag and Drop! 
The iSpring quizzing tool goes to the next level with drag and drop capability. Honestly, I'm amazed whenever I play with these tools now: I remember 100 years ago (when we had to do web design by candlelight :-) )  when it took half a day and an instruction manual for me to code a drag and drop by hand in Dreamweaver. It feels almost magical to be able to do it now in a matter of minutes. 

Well, those are my favorite new features. Everything has more options that I haven't outlined here, from annotation and transparency setting on the videos to choices of how you work with the interactions and quiz types.

If you haven't yet checked out iSpring9 I encourage you to go download the trial and see what might let you check something off your own wishlist. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Blended Learning in Practice

This month's research report comes from Insync Training's Jennifer Hofmann: 

Blended learning can be applied in a variety of ways. This report examines some common critical success factors for incorporating blended learning into organizational training and offers recommendations for a successful move towards blending learning.

Blended Learning in Practice, by Jennifer Hofmann, explores data collected in interviews with organizations in order to answer the question: How are blended learning programs being implemented, and what are the associated benefits and risks?

View the executive summary and download the report here

Friday, March 23, 2018

Social Tools for Learning: Updated Report for 2018

Social tools have emerged, disappeared, and evolved over time. The question is whether or not these tools are being used successfully in the modern L&D landscape. Are organizations leveraging social tools to support training and performance efforts today?

Earlier this year The eLearning Guild conducted a survey with its members on the topic of social tools. Using Social Tools for Learning, by Jane Bozarth, delves into the data collected from the survey and shares key findings. Access the executive summary and full report here

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Crash Course for New Instructional Designers

Classroom trainers are often recruited to create eLearning content that is nothing more than a regurgitation of classroom materials. There are lots of reasons why this happens: Managers who don’t understand that “training” involves more than just presenting content; purchasers who believe an authoring tool will allow any user to magically crank out gorgeous, interactive programs; well-meaning classroom trainers who perhaps lack a background in design or have trouble making the leap from face-to-face to multimedia approaches; companies that can’t invest in external products or developers; and individuals who just won’t say, “No.” Whatever the reason, it happens. Often. This month in Learning Solutions I offer ideas for a "crash course" in learning design for those who may find themselves thrown into the role.

Monday, March 12, 2018

What's Your Reality? AR and VR

The eLearning Guild's April research report examines the benefits and barriers of using augmented reality and virtual reality in organizations and how these organizations access and utilize the data derived from the AR and VR systems.

The eLearning Guild conducted a survey with its members on the topic of augmented reality and virtual reality. What’s Your Reality? AR and VR for Learning, by Jane Bozarth, explores the data collected from the survey and shares key findings. In the report, find action items on how you can get started.

See more at:

Monday, February 12, 2018

Creating Significant Learning Experiences

This month in Learning Solutions I take a look at Dee Fink's Five Principles of Good Course design. 
A “good course” is one which meets the following five criteria:
1. Challenges learners to higher-level learning
2. Uses active forms of learning
3. Gives frequent and immediate feedback to students on the quality of their learning
4. Uses a structured sequence of different learning activities
5. Has a fair system for assessing learning
Fink also offers ideas for taking a more expansive view of our work and beginning with the end in mind. 

The items are explained in more depth in the column proper. See

Sunday, December 03, 2017

New Job!

I'm very excited about my new role and, after more than 2 decades in government, am looking forward to exploring the mythical private sector. Watch for monthly research reports and more starting in early 2018. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

eLearning on a Shoestring

This month's Learning Solutions column revisits a favorite topic of mine: Working with very little budget.
For years, it seems that everyone in our field has been looking for ways to produce eLearning on a shoestring. In fact, my debut as a voice in the L&D industry came with publication of my first book, eLearning Solutions on a Shoestring, back in 2005. (Note: DO NOT buy a copy! It’s still available here and there and is woefully out of date. Feel free to buy any of my other books, though…) While so many great new inexpensive tools, open-source resources, creative design techniques, and friendlier pricing models have emerged, a few things seem to remain constant.

  • Not understanding the reality of development
  • Not knowing what you already have
  • The tech that will "change training forever!"
  • Cart before the horse 

For more, see the rest of the column at

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Monday, July 03, 2017

"Social Technologies in Business"

Know what happens when a bunch of your friends get together and assemble the best compilation ever of thinking in the social-social media-collaborative learning-knowledge management-narrating work realms? This book.

My interest in social learning and working out loud grew from my own wonderful experience as a participant in a vibrant community of practice. We mentored one another, shared what we learned, and even took turns demonstrating new ideas and skills in order to get feedback about how to make them better. We found ways of circumventing silos and transferring tacit knowledge, problems our employing organizations had struggled with for years. The burning question remains: How do we help all workers, and their organizations, reap the benefits of such sharing and support?

De Clercq and her team come at this with multiple perspectives and real-world experience. Those needing an introduction or a good amalgamation will find it here, in clear, concise writing organized in easily-digestible bits. Social Technologies in Business offers something for everyone: answers to objections, ideas for getting started, a review of tools, methods for implementation, case studies with “stealable” concepts.  I especially appreciate the realistic view: there’s honest discussion about barriers and failure factors, warnings about things not to do, and the reality of endeavoring to engage in enterprise-wide anything. This is an excellent resource for those hoping to influence and maybe even help transform their organizations. And the host of contributing voices, including Simon Terry,  Paul Miller, and Mathias Vermeulen, is credible.  De Clercq holds a special place in my heart for sharing my own opposition to Digital Detox. (Well, that, and the fact that she has publicly referred to me as “the Pippi Longstocking of L&D”, as there is no greater compliment.)

Some key takeaways?
-Don’t blame technology
-Have a strategy
-Being social is a mindset, not a tool
-Don’t start by fighting
-Less is more: As Charles Jennings has noted, the point is to extract learning from work, not impose more work

Beautifully designed and eminently readable, Social Technologies in Business is a winner for those seeking to understand and implement use of social tools and approaches in their practice and their workplaces. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Designing for Learner Success: First, Do No Harm

eLearning designers and developers spend a lot of time on assessments, particularly things like quizzes and knowledge checks and tests. It’s easy to fall into blame-the-learner mode when they don’t do well: I often hear everything from “they aren’t paying attention” and “they allow distractions like email and phones” to “no one reads anything.” But sometimes, easily fixed design issues are the culprits. Some things to look at are overload and extraneous information, the dreaded "wall of words", wrong information (yes, really), and the one-size-fits-all approach. See this month's Learning Solutions column for details. 

Monday, March 06, 2017

Maker Party! Show Your Work

so this happened the night of March 4. We were looking for a way to bring our more interesting friends together so hit on this:   
                Kent & Kelly: Birthday Twins!
A party with a twist: Makers only! We’re inviting friends who create: tie-dyers, artists, writers, musicians, welders, woodworkers, those who have started businesses. People with a passion or interest they have put into practice. 

             PLEASE bring something for show and tell (and to sell, if you like). Just bring some samples of your work, or something to perform, and tell us something about it: why it's a passion, how you do it, what you wish others knew about it, how you learned it, whatever. Nothing formal. 

       Speaking of Making: This will be a GRILLED CHEESE EXTRAVAGANZA with a make-your-own bar to exceed your wildest dreams. Come hungry! 
I've done a lot with ideas around working out loud over the years and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that people love to talk about their work. Not their jobs, necessarily, but their work. But “What do you do?” is not a good question. Better? “Tell us about something you love about your work, or a hobby to which you’ve devoted a lot of time and energy:  How do you do what you do? How did you learn to do it? What was the biggest obstacle?” 
Everyone had a different approach to what they wanted to share.

Process: “It puts me in a flow state.” We had a wonderful opening 10-minute-ish presentation from a friend whose tie dye hobby has turned into a cottage business. Supplementing her talk with samples, she gave us a fascinating look at her process, from creating new designs to blending colors to a new interest in the ice dying technique that produces gorgeous watercolor-esque effects.   

Interest: It’s a response to an industry problem. Wendy Gates Corbett talked more about her impetus and outcomes.  In response to so much bad PowerPoint in our business (L&D) she started Refresher Training LLC. Wendy takes slide decks and other training resources and reworks them into more engaging, effective materials. Check her site for great before-and-after examples. 

Go where the questions are; be open to showing the work people want to see: My Gang of Ukes bandmate Mitchell kindly came to sing with me but had a couple other things to offer. After years of working for other people he quit his job last week and on Saturday opened Performance Print Services, a digital printing company here in Durham NC. It was fun to hear about someone launching a lifelong dream, but the group kept getting sidetracked with questions about a gift Mitchell brought: A dozen beautiful eggs from his girlfriend’s brood of chickens. People had lots of questions for him. My 2 takeaways: Chickens that lay colored eggs lay the same color all their lives. And newly laid, unwashed eggs are coated with “bloom” that keeps them fresh without refrigeration.

Life Shift Drives Work. Sterling Fulton talked about the career path that led her to write her values-based life planning guide; she’s also behind the new site and events for Love in Action, designed to help overcome "isms". Her partner Dana Wallace Gower is also an author specializing in a faith-based view of career management. 

Lifelong Learning Path. Artist Michael Snipes (right) shared his learning path, including bartering work product for painting lessons, while Cipher Art’s Kelly Johnston talked more about process and how she works with collages to build a narrative. One thing she had to work through: a confidence problem fed by her lack of formal training.  

Her samples (below) included some work with her artistic collaborator, graphic artist Sarah Beard.  
Sarah works full-time as a packaging designer but in her spare time does a bit of other work as Cornbread Creative – lately a t-shirt-a-day project, with proceeds going to different causes -- as well as some work with Kelly.  We also heard from a friend who does gorgeous woodworking, another who discussed her interest in modern culture and political activism, and another who manages a local brewpub.   
Among the takeaways here: the local community college has resources available to artists and hobbyists, including wood lathes and glass blowing and pottery kilns.

Another takeaway: Of the people who offer online resources and samples, there was far more use of Facebook and Instagram than traditional websites.

Bunny Ears.  The evening closed with a friend’s child, Grace (age "five and two-thirds"),  who “plans on building a home for homeless people and needs to learn how to get money to help people.” She asked if she might share something with the group and showed us what she learned that day: How to tie her shoes. (Photo below by Sarah Beard.)  Then everyone had birthday cake and ice cream while Mitchell and I played “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “The Time Warp” on our ukuleles. 

The Makers party went even better than I’d hoped.  Talk was lively and happy; those who brought items for sale ended up as often as not bartering for an item with someone else. Many people found additional areas for connection or people with similar values or political interests. It turned out Kristi’s political activism dovetailed with things Sterling is working on. Sarah’s mom once raised the same kind of chickens as Mitchell’s girlfriend. Wendy and Sterling already knew each other, which I didn’t know. Sarah and Kelly had once met Linda and Heath, and their dog Dottie, at the pub Ari runs. 

I’d organized the party as a Facebook Event, which provides a separate Facebook page with space for guests to post and comment, and people are still talking about the party and to each other today. I didn’t really do a formal presentation about my work but reiterated what I said above: People love to talk about their work, and being enthusiastic and excited to show it off is interesting to others, too. Give people time and space for it, let them choose aspects they want to discuss, and ask questions besides, “So where do you work?”

We had a great night and if the idea appeals to you I’d say go for it. Some advice? 

  • Party-wise this was excellent. People were at ease, there was a lot of non-awkward non-forced conversation, and some did a bit of business or made good connections. Many found other shared areas of interest or other links.
  • It wasn’t really planned this way but 10 short (5 to 10 minute) presentations, with a dinner break, was just about enough, and took us from 6 pm to 11ish.   So I'd say don't go bigger than 10 couples. 
  • Mix it up! Don't just choose people from your own line of work. Bringing in people with eclectic interests helps everyone expand their surface area. 
  •  Everything is better with grilled cheese.  And a corgi.

Grace & Mitchell: 

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

What Does Social Learning Look Like? Pokémon GO

This month's "Nuts & Bolts" column examines social learning as it happens naturally, organically, as people go about their day:
It’s not about ‘doing social.’ It’s about supporting workers as they work by giving them the time and the right space to talk about it. It’s about listening. And it’s about using social tools to support conversations and performance already in progress.
upporting workers as they work by giving them the time and the right space to talk about it. It’s about listening. And it’s about uScenario A: An international company rolls out a new product. The trainers are thrilled with it and, despite some technical glitches, eagerly hop on to learn more about it. There isn’t much user support, so understanding more about specifics of the product proves to be a collaborative proposition. Trainers working with the product run into each other and talk, sometimes teaming up to work together.
The company hasn’t provided any collaboration tools, so the trainers across locations begin talking in places like Facebook groups, Google communities, and Reddit. They share tips via text posts as well as screenshots, audio commentary, and video clips. A few create video tutorials about product features or shortcuts.
Something like a community of practice—in which people work together to get better with the product—develops, showing hallmarks like a common vocabulary, accountability to the effort and each other, and in-jokes. There’s fun and energy around conversations. Master trainers emerge: Some commenters try to game the system but are mostly shut down by the other trainers. Some post wrong information, but it’s caught and corrected. The company keeps an eye on the activity and announces it will make adjustments to the product based on feedback gleaned from the community.
Scenario B: An international company rolls out a new product. The trainers are thrilled with it and, despite some technical glitches, eagerly hop on to learn more about it. The company sets up an internal social platform that allows for text posts and photo attachments.
Trainers are assigned to “communities”—separate discussion areas—based on their geographic location. The initial post on all forums is a disclaimer from HR advising trainers of guidelines for participating in discussions and reminding them of company communication policies. Each forum has a designated manager who facilitates conversation by supporting, redirecting, and if necessary deleting comments.
Few people participate, and when they do they’re usually just posting a hint or two, complaining about a problem, or asking for help. Responses are sporadic, and back-and-forth conversation is minimal. People report glitches and offer ideas for improving the product, but the developers are not members of the communities, so the feedback never reaches them.
Scenario B describes most failed initiatives at companies attempting to “do” social.
Scenario A is … Pokémon Go.*

You can access the rest of this article at Learning Solutions Magazine .

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Transforming Classroom to Online: What's the Reality?

“When you’re looking at ‘converting’ classroom training to an online format, try to actually get to the classroom event. Get clear on what really goes on there, as opposed to what you might hear in a meeting or via document review. Talk to the trainers or facilitators who run classroom events, and ask them about any tricks or special adaptations they might employ. Then work on ways to bring the richness—and maybe even fun—to the worker’s online experience.”
Though I rarely do traditional classroom work now, I’m still around it all the time, as it’s what my co-workers do all day, every day. Our halls are full of people here to attend classes. I hear them before sessions and during breaks, talking to one another or on phones calling home or back to the office. Often they are enjoying the class they’re in. And often they complain that the sessions are good, but not quite realistic, or not always relevant to their needs. In the classroom, a good trainer can adjust on the fly, a luxury not available to the eLearning designer. This month's column explores some common issues and ideas for overcoming them.

What's Happening in the Classroom? 
When we're in the classroom this is how we work on customer service skills for van drivers.  Can you guess why? What happens in the classroom is sometimes worth knowing. 

Compared to other service providers, a van driver’s situation is unique in a few ways:
  • The driver always has his or her back to the customer
  • The driver makes eye contact through quick glances in a mirror
  • If there’s a problem, the driver has to get the van off the road, to a safe spot, and notify a dispatcher about the issue
Want more? You can access the full article at: 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Temple Grandin Keynoting Training 2017: San Diego, January 30

I speak at many conferences and over the years have been lucky to see -- and often meet-- some remarkable presenters. I am thrilled  that Training Magazine has booked Temple Grandin to keynote Training 2017.

Wikipedia: "... an autistic American professor of animal science at Colorado State University, world-renowned autism spokesperson and consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior. She is widely celebrated as one of the first individuals on the autism spectrum to publicly share insights from her personal experience of autism. She is also the inventor of the "hug box", a device to calm those on the autism spectrum. In the 2010 Time 100, an annual list of the one hundred most influential people in the world, she was named in the "Heroes" category."

From the online conference brochure: 

Dr. Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Her achievements are remarkable given at age two she had all the signs of severe autism. Many hours of therapy, and intensive teaching enabled Temple to speak. Mentoring by her high school science teacher and her aunt motivated her to study and pursue a career as a scientist and livestock equipment designer.

She obtained her B.A. at Franklin Pierce College and has received honorary doctorates from McGill University, University of Illinois, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon University, and Duke University.

She has published hundreds of technical articles, and 12 books including "Thinking in Pictures", "The Way I See It", and "The Autistic Brain".

HBO has made a movie about her life starring Claire Danes. The movie received seven Emmy awards, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody Award.

In 2011, Temple was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Positive Deviance in L&D

A follower who'd attended my "Tips for the Positive Deviant" webinar asked on her Facebook page how ideas around Positive Deviance (PD) might be applied specifically to L&D. I answered in this month's Nuts & Bolts column
“In every group there is a minority of people who find better solutions to the challenges at hand. … Even though they have access to exactly the same resources as the rest of the group, their uncommon practices or behaviors allow them to flourish.”—Jerry Sternin
While “positive deviance” is a fun, alluring term, it’s not about just breaking rules. The “deviance” must have a positive outcome. It’s not quite just innovation or creative thinking, though those can certainly be part of it. It’s not just a random act of kindness, like paying for the coffee of the next customer in line. It’s more about deploying uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies to achieve some better result.
While there are individual positive deviants who work alone, a key factor is working with the community to surface, spread, and sustain solutions rather than try to force outside-in answers—as is so often the case with training. … Leveraging social tools and workplace communities, and encouraging people to show their work, can help to surface and spread solutions and to sustain application of new learning to the workplace.
In 1990, Jerry Sternin, director of Save the Children in Vietnam, was tasked with finding a sustainable solution for overcoming the problem of child malnutrition. At the time, 65 percent of the children under age five in Vietnamese villages were malnourished. Prior attempts to implement solutions—such as supplemental feeding programs—did not succeed for long. Along with his wife, Monique, Jerry looked at a question that researchers were working on at Tufts: “Why, with all resources being equal, are some children in a community not malnourished?” Working in four communities, the Sternins turned to the members of poor villages who seemed to overcome the malnutrition problem and have healthier children. There emerged a group of positive deviants, the families who, despite identical resources, were able to achieve better outcomes through doing things others did not. It turned out those families were giving more frequent meals than was the custom, and were feeding items—such as brine shrimp and crab—considered inappropriate for young children.

It isn’t about imposing solutions, but helping the community surface the solution it already has

You know the drill: Organization has a problem. Organization brings in “experts” to study the problem, devise a solution, run a pilot (which may mean a training program), and then leave. Organization members quickly revert back to old behaviors.
The solution in Vietnam was sustained precisely because the solution was not just imposed on the villagers. The Sternins didn’t go around lecturing about feeding more frequent meals and unusual foods. They leveraged the help of community members—the mothers of the healthier children—in working directly with other families to spread the different practices. Ultimately, the initiative cut childhood malnutrition by two-thirds because the families sustained the change.

A quick start? Flip the question

As you saw with the Sternins, a key behavior of positive deviants is their ability to reframe the question. Instead of asking, “Why are so many children malnourished?,” they asked: “Why are these other children not malnourished?”
Other examples:
  • Not “How can we stop distracted driving?” but “How can we make cars safer?” Even inexpensive new cars have sensors that prevent following too closely and that offer help with staying in lanes.
  • Not “How can we get money?” but “What can we do with no money?”
  • Not “How can we force people to finish courses?” but “How can we make the courses more interesting and worthwhile?”
Years ago, I was working with a hospital for adults with developmental disabilities, where I supervised the staff who taught emergency response courses. All workers were required to be regularly recertified in standard first aid, and we had a terrible time getting this done. In most instances, the ever-present nursing staff handled emergencies, so other staff did not perceive recertification as a high priority. Getting people to class involved a lot of foot-dragging, endless floor-coverage issues, last-minute cancellations, and even threats. One of my staff suggested that we start adding on infant and child CPR at the end of the training day. It didn’t cost us anything, as we already had staff and equipment to do it, and by trimming down breaks we didn’t extend the day by much. It solved our attendance problem overnight, as the training was suddenly seen as more valuable to the parents and grandparents who constituted a huge proportion of our audience.
The related field of appreciative inquiry offers similar flip-the-question approaches but is more specific, asking us to look for and build on the positive case or “outlier.” Is there someone in the community already exhibiting the desired behavior? What is enabling them to outperform? What resources are they tapping into that others are not?
  • Not “Why are staph infections so high in the hospital?” but “Why are staph infections lower on the third floor?”
  • Not “Why are sales down in Regions 6 and 9?” but “Why are sales up in Region 4?”
  • Not “Why do so few graduates of our leadership academy get promoted?” but “Why did these seven graduates get promoted?”
  • Why is the accident rate lower in _______? Why is the turnover rate lower in ______? Why are there fewer ethics complaints about ______ division?
For more on key characteristics of positive deviants, and ideas for applying PD principles to L&D, see this month's Nuts and Bolts column in Learning Solutions Magazine.