Training with “Design Thinking”

From the icy polar regions to the tropical expanses of the Indian Ocean, I have helped to develop and implement expedition training programs usually far outside the response scope of an ambulance, helicopter, or rescue vessel. 


As a trainer and educator, I worked with expedition guides and small vessel captains who facilitate field operations and natural/human history interpretation. I designed instructional programs to reduce the chance of accidents by improving field skills and compliance with safety protocols. Concurrently, I was responsible for building communication, leadership, and teaming skills so that teams could better function and collaborate while aboard and during operations to better serve the clients. 


My takeaway is that training is inherently problem-solving. 


To design a comprehensive training program that develops and prepares operational teams, the best way forward is to consider, “What do they want? What do they need? What are they trying to solve for themselves?” 


It is critical to approach the problem with a beginner’s mind by asking these fundamental questions. In addition, it’s important to formally solicit learners’ input on a broad scale before designing a solution. A series of focus group discussions or a survey generates a clearer expression of the problems teams face during operations. 


As Henry Ford once said, “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” 


Even with input from the audience I aim to help, a designed solution is better when focused on the larger purpose and not simply the difficulties of day-to-day operations and team interactions.


A problem statement drives the design of solutions. 


As Don Norman puts it in his piece entitled, Rethinking Design Thinking, “…take the original problem as a suggestion, not as a final statement, then think broadly about what the real issues underlying this problem statement might really be…” 


He goes on to state, “Designers resist the temptation to jump immediately to a solution to the stated problem. Instead, they first spend time determining what the basic, fundamental (root) issue is that needs to be addressed. They don’t try to search for a solution until they have determined the real problem, and even then, instead of solving that problem, they stop to consider a wide range of potential solutions. Only then will they finally converge upon their proposal. This process is called “Design Thinking.”


Allowing space for design thinking means investing in the ideation and brainstorming phases of the instructional design process. Training programs benefit from many people’s input, multiple design iterations, and less judgment in the creative stages. 


With educational elements happening in-person and online, onboard and onshore, on the job, and prior to contacts starting – there is always the possibility that we can dream up enhancements to the overall training program. Along the way, keeping an open mind about how to regularly improve can keep the design of our training relevant to the problems of our user groups. 


Of course, there were real-world limitations in the form of financial, political, and cultural realities of any given organization. Working within company parameters is perhaps the biggest challenge to employing better design thinking. The priority placed on deliverables with quick turn-around time is a stumbling block that I hope companies recognize and overcome in order to carry out successful and well-designed professional development projects. 


The failure to invest properly in design thinking and initial ideating is probably today’s biggest barrier to creating better training products for effective field staff professional development.

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