I had just asked the young man sitting opposite me in the interview to tell me about his approach to e-learning. He looked wide-eyed and suggested: “E-learning. That’s something you do with templates isn’t it?” This turned out to be one of the shortest interviews I had ever conducted. After suggesting some resources to help him in his development, I politely terminated the conversation.
Candidates who are unprepared for the job they are seeking is not that uncommon, but it got me to reflect on what made for a great instructional designer. Not in a scientific, competency-based way, but in a more holistic sense. I had to admit that after being in this business for over 20 years, it was clear that many of our best designers did not come to us with a formal instructional design qualification. In fact, I found the work of some designers who did possess the formal qualification to be formulaic and lacking in creativity. To be clear, this is not to bash the formal qualification. I fully support the acquisition of relevant knowledge and skills. It’s just that there’s so much more to being successful in this field. Here are five things that I truly value besides the core technical competencies:
Curiosity—Out of curiosity comes a number of great behaviors: a willingness to research the client’s business; the skill of listening, really listening, for what is being said and what is not said; the ability to seek clarifications; the tendency to dig deeper; and a genuine engagement with the client.
Truth-telling—Think of a kinder, more tactful Simon Cowell on American Idol. Great instructional designers have confidence in their process. They know what will work for the audience and are unapologetic about it. They don’t preach or judge, but they bring their expertise to the situation ultimately in service of the client and not their own egos. A few years back, during a difficult project meeting with a long-standing client, our instructional designer actually pounded the table with her hand and said outright, “No, you’re just not getting it.” I wouldn’t recommend this normally. But after 15 years of projects together, the client knew that this was not about the instructional designer not getting her own way. Rather, the client recognized her deep passion for success of the project.
Customer Empathy—This is the other side of the truth-telling coin. This starts with an attitude that the client is doing the best she can with the budget, time and resources available. (Occasionally this is not true, but that’s for another time.) An instructional designer who has previous experience in other roles gets this. Our clients are busy and typically under pressure. A great instructional designer asks: “What can I do to make your life easier as we collaborate on this project?”
Tolerance for Ambiguity—Let’s face it, no matter how many times you have done it, it is daunting to enter a new organization and be introduced to a complex technology that you don’t yet understand, and be bombarded with acronyms that make no sense to you. I have seen instructional designers give up at this stage, thinking that because they don’t understand, they have failed. Of course you don’t understand yet! Take a deep breath and keep going. A great instructional designer will stick with it, and patterns will eventually start to emerge.
Preparedness—This is why I can’t hire instructional designers who are like me. I spent the first 30 years of my life in notoriously laid-back New Zealand and I realize that I fit the stereotype. However, the best instructional designers go into their client meetings fully prepared. Our clients often joke about the number of questions we ask, but it pays off. After winning a very large project with a multinational company, we asked for feedback on why we were awarded the project. The client told us it was the quality of questions we asked. Preparation ultimately saves time and generates huge credibility.
This list still does a disservice to all that a great instructional designer does and is. What other attributes have you found?
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