Design Thinking For Training And Development By Sharon Boller And Laura Fletcher

I was wondering how might we start this book review…and we ended up with this: Design thinking for many is like yoga for some. I understand it is useful; and I would even be okay with just doing the exercises but that touchy-feely, spiritual, soul-searching part just doesn’t work for me.

For All Those Wondering

If your mental image of design thinking consists of corporate-ish, stock-image workers staring at post-it notes on the wall while starting out every sentence with « How might we…, » you’re probably not alone. If you’re wondering how this creative empathy exercise could be used in a lot more structured training environment with constraints all over, again, you’re probably not alone. If you’re wondering about the buzz around learning journeys, experience design, and other unicorns that seem to be working only in social media posts, yet you’ve never seen one implemented for real…You’re not alone.

Anyway, Wonder No Longer!

If you’re a learning professional, I strongly recommend the book, Design Thinking for Training and Development by Sharon Boller and Laura Fletcher. I admit the reason I pre-ordered the book is not because of its title, Design Thinking for Training and Development.

Here’s why:

  1. Design thinking blogs, posts, and other publications by learning professionals in the last decade have basically used up all stock photos with people staring smartly at a wall covered by tons of colorful post-it notes to introduce you to the fundamentals of design thinking. Yet, not many of them were actually based on case studies, practical applications, or tools and templates.
  2. I am absolutely aware and do fight the bias, but somehow T&D (instead of L&D) makes me feel like I’m not the target audience. I’m not even sure if there is a difference between T&D and L&D but in my career, the word, T&D was used by people who had very strong opinions about how to do training the « right way. » Again, it is completely my own bias.

All In All: Excellent Resource

However, I know Sharon and her professionalism. And I wasn’t disappointed. This book is not about design thinking. It is not about the fundamentals of post-it notes and theoretical stages that make it sound like you can cure the pain of the world with a little empathy just by starting every sentence with « how might we. »

Hands-On, Sleeves-Up Workbook

Sharon and Laura must have put a lot of sweat (and editing) into this book because it is a hands-on, practical workbook; a workbook for those who want to incorporate the concept of design thinking into their own rigorous work as a learning professional. Here. Now. Today. Instead of wondering about the future of learning.

I loved the balance of business needs, learner needs, and let’s be real, messy workplace constraints. It comes with plenty of worksheets, templates, and tools to support the process. Of course, as you would expect, the authors even included some mistakes they made so you don’t have to.

Why Do I Recommend Design Thinking For Training And Development?

Whether this is a book for you or not, I figured the easiest way to decide is if I list my reasons to use it and see if these also resonate with you. Don’t spend time on those points that are not relevant to you. Just skim them and dive into those that seem meaningful.

1. Two Books In One

This book covers the process, tools, templates, and best practices of creating learning journeys (because learning is not an event). That is book one. It also covers how you can get to the desired outputs in each stage by using design thinking. That is book two.

Why does this matter? Because you don’t need to incorporate every little element from the book if you don’t want to. Pick and choose what works for you if you want to start somewhere.

2. Practical

Building on the two-book concept explained above: even if you decide not to implement design thinking as is, there are practical elements described in detail you can lift and shift. The authors did a great job balancing the why and the what/how/when, etc. with the practical examples and templates provided. You can start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can by implementing what’s feasible for you today.

For example, complex problem-solving is one of the top skills according to the World Economy Forum [1]. We, learning professionals, often face problems already categorized as « training issues. » If you’re solving for the wrong problem, it doesn’t matter what methodology you’re using.

Reframing problems is one of the most powerful tricks you can have in your toolkit. Reframing the problem allows you to look at the core issue in a different light to pinpoint the real needs (by often breaking it down into different sub-problems). Reframing allows you to create an impact by addressing the real problem in the first place (getting to the needs from the wants). The reason why it is powerful is that it helps you build credit as a problem-solver rather than a course order-taker, and it is early on in the process to save valuable resources for the business.

I’ve been using this approach (whether it is part of design thinking or not) for years with success. This book will walk you through the process in detail.

3. Addresses Objections: « It Wouldn’t Work Here »

The book is not about the theory of design thinking and training. It has all the tools and templates you need to implement your own version. In fact, I would strongly recommend reading it twice:

  • First, read through the entire book to build your own process. You can do this with a team or as an individual. You can tweak the tools and templates to integrate them into the process you have today. You don’t need to throw out everything and start from scratch.
  • Then, once you have all the customized templates and tools, read it again. This time focus on the end-to-end best practices and implementation plan using your own toolkit you just built.

4. Explores Real Constraints: « It’s An IT Project »

In many organizations, when it comes to new technology, it becomes an « IT project. » This phrase has become equal to the (assumed or real) constraints of L&D. If we need to involve IT, it will never get done. Constraints can be assumed or real. Sometimes having the right conversations and asking the right questions can reveal viable alternatives.

What I like about this book is the approach of balancing learner needs, business needs, and constraints. The thing is « learners » are employees before, during, and after any learning journey. Therefore, for a successful implementation of any journey (not to mention post-implementation support, evaluation, and measurement), we must collaborate with other cross-functional teams. Collaboration also brings constraints. Read some of the examples and case studies in the book on how they are part of the plan from the beginning.

5. Shows The Pros And Cons Of Tools: « We Never Do Learner Personas Or Empathy Maps Here »

Never done learner personas, empathy maps, or experience maps? This book is a great resource to learn about the difference, the value they bring, and the constraints they have. Not only does it cover the practice itself but also why they matter and what to do when you have no access to the learners themselves, for example.

My two cents is that if you don’t have access to the learners themselves, you can still build a learner profile. I would intentionally distinguish between profile (built on input other than the target audience) and persona (built on first-hand observation and interviews with the target audience).

Sometimes when you start a project and the stakeholders have never seen the value of building learner personas, it is hard to change their minds to provide us access to learners. However, after building out the learner profile, they often see this request as a good follow-up to « validate » the profile rather than build a new one. If you find significant differences between the two, it is a crucial discussion with stakeholders.

For example, leadership believes that Customer Experience is the number one motivator and driving factor for the profile you build, yet the validation shows that direct supervisors focus more on average handle time on the phone for agents. Without resolving the issue, no Customer Experience learning journey would make the impact leadership is looking for.

Final Conclusion: Stop Wondering

If you’re looking for a workbook that allows you to build or improve your own process from the initial stakeholder mapping through implementation and evaluation using design thinking (which personally I would translate as human-centered problem solving), this is a great resource. I have no affiliation or any special interest but you can get it on Amazon [2].

Sharon and Laura have put together an excellent workbook that is hands-on, practical, and applicable so you won’t need to wonder about the future of learning as much. It’s perfect to pair with one of my favorite mantras of doing anything new in life:

« Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can. »– Arthur Ashe


[1] The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

[2] Design Thinking for Training and Development

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