Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Pillar Metaphor

The Pillar Metaphor

We use lots of metaphors for talking about mental health. Lots of models, lots of approaches. Like different camera lenses, they all offer a slightly different view that, ideally, helps us see a little more clearly.

I was talking about suicide intervention tonight, and a pillar metaphor came to mind.

Imagine that you're building a house on ground that's very wet. Digging a basement isn't going to work because it's too wet, so you dig deep and set support pillars into the soil, bedding them as deep as you can. Once these pillars are in place, you build a pad atop them, and above that you build your house. That house is your life. You live in it, you work in and on it, you invite people into it... you live in it.

As long as things are stable, you probably don't think much about whether your house is stable or not. It never attracts your attention, so you don't notice whether your house has a lot of support or just barely enough--as long as there's enough, you're good. And as long as things are stable, you probably don't spend a lot of time poking around underneath to see whether all the supports are in good working order.

This is normal.

There's a fine line between proactive maintenance and obsession. Nobody's suggesting that you should spend all your days under the house checking out the pillars, making sure their concrete is sound, clearing cobwebs, or anything. But neither is it a good idea to let your supports go too long without checking in--because otherwise you only learn about problems when you lean on the supports and they crumble.

So you've got this house, which is the metaphor for your life. At any given time, it has a certain amount of stress or strain1, which is like the total weight of the house and its contents, etc. In real life, this is the normal stuff of every-day life: family, health or illness, job, friends, the person who shoved you in the grocery store, the toddler who offered you a flower on the way home, the feeling of waking up after a good night's sleep, the lingering smell of burned toast, the questions about paying for retirement or college, the block party, all that stuff. Nothing world-shaking, nothing too far outside the ordinary. If your house was designed well and is in decent repair, you've got plenty of support for this stuff--so nothing bad happens.

But sometimes a storm comes along and trashes things. Maybe it comes with gale-force winds, which push really hard on your house's walls and (effectively) add weight to the structure. Maybe it floods the soil and then lashes it with wind, which destroys some pillars if it lasts long enough. We all know what storms look and feel like; they're the big things that hurt. Deaths, job losses, serious injuries, relationships ending... big stuff. We'll call this stuff a storm factor. (Sometimes good things can be storms, too--ask anyone with a new baby).

      Strain = House's weight * storm factor

Let's say that your house's resilience is a function of its number of pillars. Basically, it can resist a certain amount of strain, for a while, if it has enough pillars. Since pillars can be different sizes, and can also be in good or bad condition, we'll add a factor to show how strong the pillars are.

     Resilience = number of pillars * pillar strength

As long as resilience is bigger than strain, everything is fine: the house stays up, nothing shifts, and the occupants are usually pretty oblivious to the balance. But if strain creeps above the resilience threshold, even just for a moment, things start to crack. Maybe the pillars start cracking, and that pillar strength factor goes down, lowering total resilience for next time. Maybe the house starts to tip a little bit, and furniture starts falling over. It's still salvageable, but things are pretty tough. This is where we start a lot of the interventions in the mental health and substance abuse worlds. Seems a little late, don't you think?

If the strain becomes a lot higher than the resilience, the house just buckles on its supports and falls down. At that point, it's going to require heroic efforts to save it at all, and it may never go back to quite the way it was even if we succeed. This is where a lot of people enter the mental health world: in the midst of a suicide attempt, at a psychotic break, or hitting "rock bottom" on substances. There's still a great deal of help we can offer these people at this point, but on some level we're now talking about disaster services, which are tremendously expensive and resource-intensive.

About those pillars...

Let's revisit those equations I posted up above.

     Strain = House's weight * storm factor
     Resilience = number of pillars * pillar strength

Which factors can we control? We can have a small effect on the house's weight--we can take a more- or less-stressful job, add or subtract relationships, etc., but a lot of the stuff in the house isn't really under our control. We can't do anything at all about the storm factor, because accidents happen and we can't stop them.

What about the pillars? For this argument, I'll say that most of our efforts work on increasing the number of pillars we have, and that pillar strength is largely out of individual control. (This is handwaving. Bear with me.) If you think your house needs more support, you can go out and find some. Maybe it works something like this:

     Good family relationships --> you get 5% more pillars
     Good health --> you get 5% more pillars
     Mental health care --> you get 5% more pillars
     Faith community --> you get 5% more pillars
     Stable job --> you get 5% more pillars
     Nice neighbors --> you get 5% more pillars
     ...  and so on.

The more of these you stack up, the higher your resilience value is going to be. Remember, this won't matter on most days, because your house was designed with enough resilience for its intended normal load. But the more extra pillars you get, the bigger a storm has to be before it can knock your house down. You can weather the storm (forgive me) with way better odds.

But it's not all positive. We can look at a lot of the conditions we work with, in terms of pillars, as vandals that go in and sabotage your foundations under cover of darkness. They go in and mess with the pillars and, again, under normal conditions, you may never know until things get really bad. But eventually, this stuff can weaken the foundations to the point where even normal life exceeds the rated strength of the foundation:

      Schizophrenia --> knock down 20% of your pillars
      Chronic illness --> knock down 10% of your pillars
      Alcoholism --> knock down 15% of your pillars
      Lyme disease --> knock down 15% of your pillars and put up paper replicas to hide the empty spaces
      Loss of loved ones --> knock down 5-50% of your pillars
      Poverty --> knock down 65% of your pillars and require monthly rent on the others
      ... and so on.

So what's the point?

It's not easy to see the foundations of things. There's usually a lot of stuff piled on top: a house, a history, a life. Even with a lot of introspection, it's hard to really know what's going on under there unless things start falling apart. We just know one simple thing: it's strong enough, or it isn't.

Not everybody even starts with the same number of pillars. John D. Rockefeller had some advantages compared to the people living under bridges, and we can think of these in terms of how many pillars of support they started with. Some people just get wired in ways that make them seemingly happy all the time; many of them got lots of pillars at the beginning. Some people come from horribly disadvantaged backgrounds, have very few pillars, and still do fine--we can think of  this as having a few pillars with huge pillar strength factors.

But we often forget that people's life conditions make them more exposed to instability, or we pretend that it's all about willpower. How many times have you heard someone talk dismissively about an alcoholic who starts drinking again after a year in recovery or a mentally ill person who "loses it"? Heard someone tell a suicidal person not to be so selfish, or a schizophrenic that if they just try harder, the voices will go away?

Would a contractor say "well, your house wouldn't have fallen over if the foundations had tried harder"?


I'm not trying to say that willpower is unimportant, but I think it's overrated. A lot of the problems our clients and callers face are saboteurs: they destroy the underpinnings for a stable life. Is it any wonder their boats are sinking when they've got so many stowaways drilling holes in the hull? Is it the house's fault that it falls over if half its pillars are gone?

I'd like to see our behavioral health professions taking a more compassionate look at people's circumstances. Real empathy starts with seeing people the way they are, and respecting what's possible for them. Not everyone gets to have a house with tons of extra pillars. Some people's houses fall down. Sometimes their choices lead directly there; sometimes they've tried good things but been overmatched; sometimes they succeed in shoring up the foundations. But when the strain outweighs the resilience, we shouldn't be surprised that things fall apart.

So that's the pillar metaphor: a new lens for seeing stability.

1: Yes, I know that my use misuse of 'stress' and 'strain' is probably giving the engineers in my audience conniptions.  I'm sorry. Maybe you could use this moment to notice that my misuse of terms has momentarily increased the stress in your life (did you see what I did there?) and that your support pillars are under a bit more strain just now. Perhaps this will provide the impulse you need to force yourself to display a little more toughness in your relationship to words with linkages to multiple meanings, or maybe you'll just think I'm a jerk. :-)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Personal Development Plan

(this is a required Walden University post. From the assignment: "Write your own personal development plan designed for you specifically and post it on your blog. Include the following components in your plan:
  • Four types of development (from this week’s Learning Resources) that you will advocate for your employer to provide you and/or that you will pursue on your own (for example, continuing your professional learning outside of the workplace)
  • A rationale for each of your development ideas")
Looking at myself, I see a budding instructional designer with a wealth of good ideas, some experience, a lot of excitement, and a need for practice. While there are many positive things Walden's MSIDT program provides, its curriculum is short on opportunities to practice and fully integrate the different areas of professional practice that instructional design includes. Some classes even feature projects whose requirements conflict with best practices taught in other classes, which is often frustrating. This leaves me with the feeling that my primary goal in professional development post-MS involves unification and synthesis of the different lessons I've been taught over the past two years.

Formal education
It may seem strange that my first area for professional development is "formal education" given that I'm about to complete a Master's degree. However, I've watched my skills and knowledge grow very quickly through the years I've been in graduate school, and I think part of the reason is that my mind works differently when I'm actively engaged in learning new things. I believe that, in my own case, learning is a habit as much as a skill, and graduate school instills and strengthens that habit. Put simply, I believe that I am a better employee when I am working to learn things: my mind is quicker, my writing is clearer, and my ideas flow more freely.

There are many areas of instructional design practice I would like to explore more fully, including
  • the role of multimedia in learning
  • the use of mobile devices for learning and electronic performance support
  • how to teach facilitation skills to novices
  • how to crystallize ID practice into easily-communicated chunks for laypeople
  • fostering far transfer of training into complex, high-level environments
  • statistical methods for analyzing instructional effectiveness
  • quantifying the effect of distraction on learning
  • teaching and promoting metacognitive strategies in learners
  • instructional methods analysis with focus on low implementation cost
  • collaboration around teaching basic video media production to instructional designers
  • the interaction between good instructional design and pre-fabricated curricula such as those for No Child Left Behind
  • development of effective coaching and mentoring systems
  • development of Training For Trainers (T4T) courses
  • development of low-cost higher-level evaluation measures for training courses
  • evaluating return on investment (ROI) for attitudinal training such as suicide awareness/intervention

Evaluation of work
My coursework included substantial segments about program evaluation and project management, and the courses on performance improvement definitely played into my fixation on results. That said, the old adage that "a man who proofs his own prose has a fool for an editor" holds true for instructional design work. I will need help evaluating my design work and holding it up to the light of analysis.

If past experience holds true, I will not lack for supporters and proponents; people generally think my work is excellent. Sometimes, I even agree with them! For example, a training program I created recently won the NSU Award for Outstanding Practice by a Graduate Student from the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. I'm (justifiably?) proud of this, because it tells me that I'm moving in the right direction in my work as a designer.

But too often, I've seen people laud my work simply because it was better than what came before. Often, I've been the first person to develop training around an issue, which makes my work de facto an improvement. But for true professional growth, I need colleagues who will help me see areas where my work needs to improve, not just those where it already excels. I don't think these colleagues must be instructional designers--I just think they need to be willing to ask questions, give suggestions, and examine data with me.

Assessment/performance appraisal
This relates to the previous set of professional development goals. On the face of it, this is a pretty obvious need, but there's a deeper level that requires a bit of explanation.

I am, among other things, a professional musician. (If you're interested in Celtic music, please check out my band, Frost and Fire! We have some new music that we're releasing on our Facebook page, too!) I love performing, and I've learned something over the last few decades of music: I play best when people are listening. I put the most energy into my performance, and I create music on a level that doesn't seem to happen when I'm just playing for myself. I work hardest when there's an audience.

Do you see how this connects to a need for performance appraisal and assessment? I don't mean that I want recognition for good performance, although that's always nice. I mean that knowing I'm going to be observed changes my performance. Whenever I'm working in a context where people assess my performance, I always seem to turn it up a notch, and I think that building in opportunities for assessment is important for my long-term professional growth. Again, I'm not looking for empty compliments and fulsome praise; I'm looking for honesty. (And I hope I'll remember that when the comments aren't favorable!)

This is where it all comes together. I am a fairly seasoned professional in the crisis hotline business, but a relatively new one in the world of instructional design. I don't know all the tricks yet, and I don't know all the right people. My network is small. I also worry that once I graduate and lose access to Walden's reference library, it will become harder and harder for me to stay in touch with new developments in the ID field (since academic research is hard to access for people outside academia).

Who will help me find new areas to explore? Who will pick me up and dust me off when the inevitable low points hit? Who will teach me how to mentor other new instructional designers? Who will ferret out my flaws as a designer and help me to correct them, while helping me to see my talents as well? Who will make sure that I'm a stronger instructional designer ten years from now, not just a more experienced one?

I don't know the answers to these questions. I wish I did. I'm used to seeking--and finding--mentors in unusual places, but I'm worried about this: I'm the first instructional designer a lot of people have ever met, and IDs are a bit thin on the ground in northern New York. Where do I go for mentoring? I have some leads already, and I have friends who respect me but also challenge me and demand evidence... is that what the mentor role looks like in the post-graduate world? I work in a business that's too small to provide formal mentoring on instructional design--I am the expert and mentor now. So where do I look for other mentors? That is, perhaps, my biggest long-term goal.


Noe, R. A. (2010). Employee training and development. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

High-Tech Training

(this is a required Walden post)

Five technologies that are changing the world of learning and performance:

Smartphones. Today's smartphones are powerful, networked computing devices whose capabilities dwarf those of many computers from a few years ago. As mobile technology becomes cheaper, smaller, and more pervasive, we can expect to see a continued focus on smartphones in learning, particularly in large-setting instruction. Smartphones can be used as classroom clickers, can provide learners with instant access to resources shown in class, and allow learners to remain connected to their productivity networks while in learning environments. I spent this week at a national conference for crisis center directors, and it was amazing to see how many people were using smartphones for business purposes during and between workshops. I used mine to supervise hotline volunteers back home, to view resources related to the presentations, and to discuss the presentations with fellow participants. I think we will continue to see smartphones being integrated into more and more aspects of learning.

Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSS). I had the privilege of visiting BHR (Behavioral Health Response) during this week's crisis hotline conference in St. Louis, MO. BHR operates dozens of different lines for a variety of contracts ranging from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to youth hotlines to after-hours support for patients in substance abuse programs. BHR's staff are expected to answer all calls in a professional and appropriate manner, which includes knowing which questions to ask of callers. They've built a truly impressive EPSS that ties in with their phone system and makes sure that all of their Masters-level counselors have support in working with callers. As soon as the phone rings, BHR workers see a screen displaying the required greeting and listing questions they'll need to ask. With hundreds of different protocols, it would be a practical impossibility to create this kind of service without an EPSS. As network connectivity continues to make memorized information into a less and less valued commodity, I expect EPSSes to shine: they offer appropriate support and guidance, as well as tailored information when needed. I would love to have access to BHR's EPSS for my hotline volunteers!

Interactive Voice Technology. Anyone who reads about technology probably heard this week's buzz about the new Apple iPhone 4S. Amid all the other features is a truly impressive speech recognition package called Siri. The idea is that Siri will allow iPhone users to talk to their phones in a fluid, natural language manner--and that Siri will answer back verbally. Although some of these technologies have been around a while, the addition of powerful mobile computing has made them a much more significant factor in the marketplace and learning world. There are lots of ways that Siri and similar technologies could affect learning; as an example, a student in a course about mental hygiene laws could whisper, "Siri: what is the law about involuntary hospitalization of the mentally ill in New York?" and quickly receive answers from Google.

Imaging. I teach Scottish music for part of my living, primarily on highland bagpipes. Since most of the Scottish repertoire consists of fairly short tunes, pipers tend to amass a great deal of sheet music. Recent advances in imaging technology should pay real dividends when it comes to acquiring, cataloguing, and storing sheet music. I look forward to the day when I can scan all my sheet music and search for it when I'm trying to remember how a particular tune goes. No more flipping through endless books of the wrong tunes!

Cloud Computing. Han (2010) offers a good, accessible introduction to the principles of cloud computing. If you've ever used Google Docs or Youtube, you probably have an innate sense of cloud computing's power. In brief, it uses economies of scale to shift computer power away from individually-owned clusters and into more massive collections--which are, collectively, referred to as the Cloud. The networked nature of cloud data has made it accessible from anywhere, and that has facilitated incredible collaboration between people working in separate countries. I think cloud computing will continue to affect learning as it becomes more prevalent--more and more services will move toward cloud-hosting solutions... so websites will be hosted in the cloud, photos will live there, etc. Through it all, we'll see a continuation and strengthening of the "work from anywhere" approach in cloud computing. The cloud will help a great deal in the project to eliminate physical distance as a factor involved in learning potential.


Han, Y. (2010). On the clouds: a new way of computing. Information Technology & Libraries, 29, 87-92.

Noe, R. A. (2010). Employee training and development (5th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Stolovitch, H. D., & Keeps, E. J. (2011). Telling ain’t training. Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Needs Assessment for Southwest Airlines

(This is a required Walden post)

For this post, we're asked to discuss what kinds of factors might play into a needs assessment for training design at Southwest Airlines. Southwest is a budget airline carrier whose reputation for fun, customer service, and "LUV" is a watchword throughout the airline industry. I have many professional colleagues who will only fly Southwest, and I have found it intriguing to see the ways that staid, straight-laced professionals wax rhapsodic about the kooky antics of their Southwest air stewards.

We're asked to reflect on these questions:

  • What stakeholders would you want to make sure to get buy-in from?
  • What questions would you ask (and to whom would you address them) during the organizational, person, and task analysis phases?
  • What documents or records might you ask to see?
  • What techniques would you employ (see Table 3.2 on page 108 of the Noe text), and why?

Southwest is an airline. That means most of its training will likely pertain to aviation, logistics, customer service, or management. Aviation is already a heavily-regulated field, and as a licensed pilot I can say that aviation is pretty well covered from a training perspective. That brings us to logistics, customer service, and management. These are quite different domains, and they're likely to have highly different problems, different people, different techniques for managing problems, and thus different needs for training. In the absence of further guidance, it's hard to describe where to start with needs analysis.

Drawing on Stolovitch & Keeps's ideas about performance improvement, I don't hold with the belief that training is an automatic necessity--so I'm uncomfortable with the idea that Southwest needs training just because someone says so. I'd like to focus on the business needs first: what's happening now, what is the goal state, and how do those two things differ? What needs to be happening differently? That's a critical first step in needs assessment.

There are a number of stakeholders who need to buy into the training development if it's going to be a success. At a minimum, we need management support (from both lower- and upper-level management). We need to know that the project will be implemented if it is successful. Other important stakeholders include: the people to be trained; the shareholders in the company (depending on what kind of training we're talking about, and how extensive the new training is); and relevant regulators (again depending on the type of training). It would also be important to include Southwest's internal evaluation team, assuming it has one, so we can build evaluation into the training from the very beginning.

Organizational questions:

  • What business goals are we trying to support? (Managers)
  • Are all the stakeholders on board? (All stakeholders)
  • What gaps in performance do we see? (All stakeholders)
  • What other solutions have been tried for fixing these gaps? (Managers)
  • Do we have subject matter experts to help with developing training? (All stakeholders)
  • What is the goal behavior? (Managers)
  • What resources are available for solving this problem? (Managers)
  • How soon does the problem need to be fixed? (Managers)
  • How shall we measure our success? (All stakeholders)
Person analysis:
  • What are the characteristics of the trainees? (All stakeholders)
  • What are the gaps in performance? (All stakeholders)
  • How important are those gaps, relative to each other? (Managers)
  • What assets and skills do the prospective trainees have? (All stakeholders)
  • What do the trainees see as important? (Workers)
  • What are the motivational aspects of this situation? (Workers and managers)
  • What previous training have the trainees undergone? (Workers and managers)
  • (without knowing which people we're doing needs assessment on, it's hard to come up with more specific questions)
Task analysis:
  • What standards for performance exist? (Managers)
  • How are those standards communicated and enforced? (Managers and workers)
  • Are there best practices for whatever we're training people to do? (Managers)
  • What are workers doing now? (Managers and workers)
  • What should workers be doing? (Managers)
  • Where do mistakes occur? (Managers and workers)
  • Why do mistakes occur? (Managers and workers)
  • How much tolerance for variation is there within the task requirements? (Managers and workers)
Data sources:

(Again, this is hard because I don't know what kind of training we're being asked to develop.) For behaviors, I would probably want to observe the poor behavior with an SME at my side to explain what was happening. Once I was grounded in the situation, I would want to see the pre-existing training materials, any written standards, information about how feedback is communicated to the workers, data about how often the undesirable behaviors happen and how much they cost the company, etc. I would be interested to see how other airlines train their workers, but I doubt that Southwest would be able to provide that information. 

Techniques used:

As I said, I would use some interviews, some documentation review, some observation, and some focus groups. Depending on the training needs, some of these might not be necessary, and other methods might be more cost-effective; but it's hard to know in the general case.

I have a strong personal bias in favor of doing a really good front-end analysis and needs assessment, to the point where I think it's worth spending a larger chunk of the total budget on analysis. Solving the right problem is important, and I would rather know for sure what's happening and what causes it before we go developing solutions. To be clear, I would also plan to run an iterative model that periodically re-evaluates the initial assumptions... but I think it's important to think clearly and critically at the beginning, too. 

Training that Supports Learning

(This is a required Walden post with an elevator speech about the value of training in a corporate environment).

Training is a tool for helping all our employees to perform their best, and it's a cost-effective way of making sure that our company is competitive today and stays that way tomorrow.

Training can be a lot of different things--people often think of it as just learning new information, but training can also help people to work better together. Aside from just giving people new knowledge, we can help them develop skills like working effectively in groups, communicating concisely and clearly, managing other workers effectively, giving and receiving appropriate feedback... the sky is the limit. If you're tired of sitting in long meetings, you might find it useful if we offered management some training on how to run meetings and keep
them short and on-task. Training might help managers to see why giving their workers adequate
time on breaks is critical for productivity, and it might help workers to feel more connected
to each other and to their work here.

Lots of people dislike training, and I think that's partly because they've never experienced
*good* training. Training, at its best, helps people. It helps them do things they care about
doing well, it teaches them how to do new things, and it opens their minds to new ideas that
matter. It's an important part of building for the future--our company's sustainability depends
on quickly training people to fill the shoes of employees who retire. Good training makes that
process much faster, which saves us money.

Anyone can "do" training, but like many other things, it improves with time and attention--and
that's why it's worth having a training department. Since we study training development, we can
build courses that are efficient, and that saves time for everyone. Our job is to make sure
every part of the company performs at a high level, which is important because it helps us all
stay competitive... and that's how *we* contribute to the company's bottom line.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Learning to exist in the world (as an instructional designer)

When I enrolled in a program to get an MS in Instructional Design, a friend told me something. She was my predecessor in my current job, and she left our office to pursue her own graduate studies--in instructional design. Thanks to distance learning, I can keep my job and study at the same time. Anyway.

She told me, "Watch out--it's going to ruin training for you." What she meant was that, when you start learning to design effective instruction, you become attuned to the things that make learning work. More to the point, you start to notice when those things are conspicuously absent in training programs, textbooks, instruction manuals, menus, websites, memoranda, ... you get the idea.

There's a corollary that's probably familiar to anyone who has gotten really excited about some new thing, whether it's religion, a new baby, dieting, exercise, World of Warcraft, a new kitten, whatever: other people may not share your excitement. They may not wish to receive the benefit of your new-found knowledge, however obsessively researched it may be. They may not want it. And so there's a time-honored tradition of not pointing out all the flaws we see, so as to exist in the world without being strung up by our thumbs.

And yet we're supposed to be making the world a better place. There's stuff in our codes of ethics about using our powers for good, and it seems unreasonable to withhold useful knowledge from people who clearly need it. I imagine that doctors struggle with this all the time, seeing people socially whose health problems will soon get much worse--and choosing to remain silent. But where's the dividing line?

Now that I'm studying performance improvement in addition to instructional design, the quandary is worse. When a friend's business is in danger from (what seem to be) fairly clear performance issues, should you speak up? If you live by the creed of "first, do no harm", what do you do when it's no longer clear which choice harms people more? This is the kind of situation ethics my grandfather studied at Oxford, and I wish he were still alive to talk about it.

For myself, I mostly stay quiet. But I'm not happy with that, because I feel that I've been given this knowledge and these skills... almost in trust, I guess you could say. It doesn't seem right to hoard them. But how to share appropriately? That's a skill my textbooks don't cover, and I'm still working on learning.

If any of these questions resonate for you, how do you answer them in your own life?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Scope Creep

(another Walden required blog post)

I haven't been part of too many projects that suffered from scope creep--that sin, at least, I've mostly managed to avoid--but I do recall one series of Training Weekends for my employer that drifted noticeably outside their intended scope. We do a Training Weekend at the beginning of each academic semester as part of our initial training for new crisis hotline volunteers, and it typically introduces the new recruits to a wide range of hotline-related topics ranging from listening skills through suicide intervention.

We often had outside speakers from other organizations during our Training Weekends, too: presenters from the domestic violence organization, folks talking about Alcoholics Anonymous, people talking about what it was like to grow up gay in our rural, often conservative area. Our volunteers got a real charge out of these presentations, and we found that they learned a lot from them. So, as time went on, more and more organizations found out that we were offering training and started sending us their public speakers for presentations. Since we work closely with all of these agencies, we found it hard--even impossible--to say no.

Over time, the list grew, and near the end we had this grouping at our training: Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Al-Anon, our county's mental health clinic, domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, gay support, and a student support group. Out of our total 22 hours of instruction, we were spending 8 of them on outside groups. These outside presenters were often very busy, which meant that scheduling them was a nightmare--and forced us to throw our internal presentations in wherever there was a slot. Certainly not an ideal instructional sequencing plan! I remember finding that I spent more hours on scheduling and coordinating the outside speakers than on all other preparatory tasks combined.

Something needed to change, and we met as a training team to discuss it. We'd been seeing problems among our trainees for several semesters: they weren't strong enough at some of the basics, and they were often quite confused about the outside organizations that had come to present. After a lot of discussion, we concluded that the outside presentations were often perplexing to our new trainees, and that we needed to give them a more coherent training that focused on basics. We changed the schedule, and the new (now-current) Training Weekend was born.

Some things that were pretty important in the process: having an open, honest meeting with all the stakeholders (our staff, volunteers, and trainees). Greer (2010) talks about this kind of meeting being important, and it really was, since it helped us to see where the problem was starting. Portny et al (2009) talk about the value of formal change of scope documents, and we didn't have those--although they might have helped us to recognize this problem before it got so far out of hand, because each additional presenter would have required separate thought and approval. Our organization is typically quite relaxed about the scheduling of trainings, and while that's valuable, it also contributed to this problem.

We're asked to reflect on what we could have done to fix the problems if we had been in charge of the project. Well, I was in charge of the project. However, I was very new in my job, and much younger than the rest of the staff and most of the outside presenters. I don't think I was sufficiently confident in my authority to make major changes at first--I needed some "seasoning" time. It might have helped to have a slightly more formal delegation of responsibility and authority for the training program, since I think our leadership team was a bit unsure about who was in charge of what.

In the end, we cut out most of the outside speakers, reduced the scope of our training, and found that our trainees showed a marked improvement in their ability to do the basic tasks of a hotline worker. We attribute this change to our new practice of spending a lot of time on a fairly small set of skills and knowledge, which gives the group time to form, learn, and start to perform.


Greer, M. (2010). The Project Management Minimalist: Just Enough PM to Rock Your Projects! Baltimore Laureate Education, Inc. Retrieved from

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