The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Instructional Designers

Developing the best performance intervention, rather than jumping through hoops to fill every training request requires a different breed of instructional designer (ID).  These IDs are well schooled in Performance Consulting, a bedrock book for the human resources, learning and organizational development fields introduced by Dana and Jim Robinson.  But beyond that, effective IDs share some very distinct habits.  Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, presents us with a fairly good framework for highlighting these.

1.       Laser-focused on the business goal and wields it to drive every decision.  Too many corporate training initiatives are nothing more than information dumps chock full of facts and bullet-points.  And no, a quiz or a survey at the end of an information dump does not make it interactive or useful.  Effective instructional designers know that if their interventions are going to succeed, they are going to have to eliminate the mentality of many clients and subject-matter experts to toss in every bit of information that is available- the “everything including the kitchen sink” mentality.  Instead, the great ones are OCD about the business goal behind the training need and exercise Habit #2.

2.       Educate up, down, and sideways.  Subject-matter experts need their expertise focused on the business goals, and on the learners’ performance.  Project managers need to be educated on our methodologies to the extent that they will understand the project’s milestones and time and budgetary requirements.  Client’s need to be educated on why the focus needs to be sharpened, on what works with the population of learners we are targeting, and on why we select the methodologies and interventions that we do-they are paying for it.  With all of this educating that needs to take place, effective instructional designers are first and foremost excellent teachers.  In order to educate all of the stakeholders in a project, effective designers must be at the “top of their game” and knowledgeable on the latest in educational technology, the best ones proactively keep up with the latest developments in the field. 

3.       Stays on top of their “game”.  Clients want to hire the best and brightest, and the best IDs are constantly developing and growing their skill set and knowledge of their craft.  It is imperative that you stay abreast of developments in the fields of instructional design, education, psychology (especially if your work revolves around a specific target population), and issues affecting today’s business climate.  Become disciplined in setting aside time every day to learn something new about your craft, or participate in learning something via a new delivery platform.

4.       Stays Organized.  Instructional design requires the development of objectives, assessments, strategies, graphic design assets, audio & video assets, storyboards, guides, manuals, job aids, and other tools of the trade. Used correctly these tools have the potential to transform performance and drive organizational behavior. And all of these assets must be stored in a way that they can be referenced in the future, and the organization can access them at the time of need.  Performers must be able to find the learning assets they need, when they need them, how they need them, and wherever they need them.

Effective instructional designers prioritize work that matters.

5.       First things first.  Effective IDs prioritize work that matters.  This is the difference between spending your time on a PowerPoint file riddled with bullet points, versus analyzing the performance of a star employee who is outperforming his peers by leaps and bounds. Focus on urgent and important business needs- not just urgent, and especially not on urgent and unimportant. Too many IDs spend their valuable time performing menial tasks rather than honing and flexing their performance consulting skillset.  Effective IDs rank and rate requests for their expertise by proximity to the organization’s business and strategic goals. They realize what belongs on the back burner, and what should be handled immediately.

6.       Advocates for the learner.  ID’s have an ethical responsibility to not bore learners with “training materials” that are ineffective and worthless. The ID is an advocate for the learner or performer who will utilize the material.  Instructions must be clear, multimedia assets should be relevant and professionally produced, test questions and distractors should objectively measure newly acquired knowledge, skills, and abilities and be well written. Time and budgetary constraints will always place limits on the instructional strategies you are able to pursue, but the best ID’s will achieve a greater “return on learning” given a project’s constraints.

7.       Collaborate.  The best instructional designers work with their clients, not for their clients.  This is really important and takes years to master.  When an ID works with a company or client, they are a partner in their success. The difference lies in in the control a client can exert over the design of any intervention when the ID is perceived as an employee whose duty is to merely follow instructions.  Working for a company or client, it becomes too easy for them to dictate the instructional strategy the designer can follow. Effective IDs know they must be on equal footing in order to drive forward with solutions that will meet real needs, and not perceived wants.

As the economy continues to improve and the hiring market picks up steam, effective instructional designers will leverage these habits to bring new hires up to speed quicker, and to develop the existing talent pool to grow into roles that will be vacated by departing staff.  It’s time to up your game, following the seven habits is a great starting point.


Alex Santos

Alex is a co-founder and Managing Member of Collabor8 Learning, LLC, an instructional design and performance management consultancy. His firm collaborates with organizations to enhance the way they develop  and train their people. To learn more about Collabor8 Learning, click here.

Alex can be reached at 786-512-1069, or via Twitter@collabor8alex.