When Needs Analysis Fails: Five Simple Fixes for Instructional Designers



Before I share with you my five tips for success, there is some voluntary pre-reading. Hidden below, I’ve authored a cringe-worthy needs analysis interaction between you (the instructional designer) and a project manager (PM). The text is hidden because it may trigger PTSD for some IDs. Consider yourself warned. Toggle the arrow above to begin.


The Setting

Imagine you are an instructional designer (ID) preparing to sit down to an initial needs analysis meeting with a project manager from a department within your own company. Although you’ve worked around one another for nine months, you’ve never directly worked on a project together.Good luck.

Background Info

The PM’s overall goal: Departmental return on investment (ROI). Whatever that means.

The PM’s objective for this encounter: Get you to build a website with as many features as possible for the lowest cost. (And maybe meet the department’s objective for wanting the website. But we won’t know because evaluation isn’t a department priority.)

Your overall/idealistic goal (as an instructional designer, ID): Change people’s lives. Empower, strengthen, and meet the needs of learners. Make them better, smarter, and more effective at what they do, ultimately adding value to the company.

Your objective for this interaction: Be a “business partner” by utilizing your expertise to understand and meet the client’s goals, and then offer appropriate solutions (training or otherwise) at various price points by first identifying the client’s objectives, audience, budget, and schedule.

The Novela Begins…

PM: *Silently walks into the reserved conference room, praying through clenched but grinning teeth that this interaction will go as smoothly for him as possible.* “Hi. We want you to build us a website to market our new product, please.”

ID: *You feign excitement while repressing instant frustration; clients always seem to ask for specific deliverables (the horse) before they know what they really want their products to do (the cart).* “A website! Sounds exciting! I’ve built some eye-popping websites for customers in the past in order to—”

PM: *Interrupting* “Yes! That exactly what we want! Just like that other one you did!” *Things are going better than expected. Now to settle on the cost…*

ID: *This is going to take longer than expected. I need to verify that a website is the right tool for the job.* “Great! So tell me a little bit more. After people see your website, what do you want to have happen? What’s the ideal outcome?”

PM: “We want them all to convert from using the old department tool to this new tool we just built for them.”

ID: “Okay!” *Client request: a systemic change in attitude/value/belief, moving users to adoption of new tool. Potential Solutions: behavior modeling, introduce cognitive dissonance, role playing/simulation, storytelling, celebrity/expert endorsement, appealing to intellect, subtle emotional manipulation techniques, etc.  Additional instruction likely.* “Tell me more about your audience. Who’s going to be using your site? Will the same people who adopt your tool be the ones using it?”

PM: “Yes. But the product is for office use only.” *Why are we still having this conversation?*

ID: *I’m not convinced a website is the best solution for changing the behavioral component of affect.* “I can see there’s a lot of departmental excitement about a website; it’s obviously some serious thought has gone into this. But the way I’m understanding so far, a website wouldn’t be my recommendation. So help me understand. How did you come to decide that a website will help convince your people to switch products?”

PM: *I’m not supposed to be the one selling you. You’re supposed to be selling me! Or at least be a “yes-man.”* “My higher ups and I love the of blasting the employees with an in-your-face message they can’t ignore. Something like, ‘we have an awesome new product! Click this link to download and check it out!’ Basically, this can’t be a training. Our people hate trainings. Better to let them discover it on their own. That’s what’s getting traction right now.”

ID: *How can I communicate my true misgivings about the direction of this project without coming off as insensitive to the client’s feelings.* “I hear what you’re saying! You want an accessible, flashy announcement that links employees to the product, right?”

PM: “You got it! But we also want the website to have testimonials, and training pages, and leader boards too; just like your other website. And since it’s still Q1, budget is unfortunately an issue. Everything is already earmarked.” *I’m just going to say it.* “We need you to deliver as much of that as possible for less than $8,000.”

ID: *[Not thinking about cost at all.] This is overkill! Creating a giant website to solve this problem is like cooking a stew with prime steak meat. We’ll need to get on the same page in order for me to be an effective partner here. More analysis is needed. To deliver a solution that works, I’ll need to find out more about what his department really wants. Perhaps I can build rapport (a first step to winning the client’s trust) by bringing up reduced project costs.* “I’m excited to be partnering with you on this exciting project. And our training group wants nothing more that to deliver the best solution that fits in your budget. Now, I’ll need gather more data before I can offer specific details, but what if I told you I could offer you the same outcome you want for a mere fraction of the cost of a website?”

PM: “Saving money is good. I’m listening. But what’s the catch?”

ID: “Just spitballing here, but if all you want product adoption, instead of building a costly website, we could simply host a brownbag lunch ‘show and tell’ where we invite nominated nay-sayers from each team within your department to pre-identify their negative perceptions as consumers. Then at the lunch, we resolve their concerns and offer tailored demonstrations on how switching products adds value for their team. We work until all the issues are resolved. Then we let them convert the rest of their teams.”

PM: *Skeptical/Borderline defensive* “We’ve already done all that during the alpha and beta phases of product development—didn’t work. We then tried mass emailing out a role-out announcement ourselves, but only two people in the whole company downloaded the product outside of our team. People just don’t want to change. What we need is something more visually explosive! That’s why we came to you.”

ID: “I can see you believe this website idea is a silver bullet. And I’m happy to build you a website if that’s how I can best be of service to you right now. I’m just not sure a website is the best way for you to get what you want. For me to better help you, we need more data. It seems to me that you have a definite perspective on how the product was rolled out in the past and are invested in its success. *Your very job might be riding on its successful implementation.* But I haven’t heard the perspectives from other stakeholder from within the department. Do you have any survey, focus group, or interview data from stakeholders, especially end users? That information can help us be sure we’re understanding what you really want—”

PM: *’This guy is an friggn’ idiot.’ Staring into your eyes and repeatedly raising and his lowering hands in a chopping motion* “What I really want, is a website.”

ID: [Rolling over.] “Okay. Absolutely. You’re right. My job isn’t to help you get what you really want. It’s to delight my customers. Now, forgive me for trying one last time, but part of the way we’ve delighted customers in the past is by giving them an excellent return on their investment, which I know is also important to you. Now, speaking on behalf of your department, do you really want to sink tons of money into something that isn’t designed to do the thing you’re paying for it to do?”

PM: *[Forcing back an aneurysm.] ‘Oh! Okay, I see our miscommunication now. You believe you’re actually helping by asking me all these questions, when the truth is you’re just getting under my skin. I already have a green light from my higher-ups on the website idea. I’m just a cog in a wheel. It’s my job to get you to agree to the budget we allocated for this project. Ultimately, I can’t hear what you’re saying because I haven’t directly worked with you before, which means I don’t trust you to know what I want, or to save me money. If you give me the run around one more time, we’re contracting someone outside the company to come in and make it happen.’* “…So can you build a website for us?”

ID: *I hate my life.* “Sure.”


Five Fixes For Instructional Designers

train_wreck_at_montparnasse_1895_failA tiny piece of me died while composing that conversation; what a train wreck! Obviously, it was a bit exaggerated. PMs aren’t actually the small-minded demons I made them out to be. (But it can sometimes be perceived that way by IDs. Perhaps later I’ll post the same encounter from a PM’s perspective!)

While the blame for this miserable needs analysis meeting doesn’t rest solely on the ID’s shoulders, the following five techniques are designed to help the ID improve that conversation. After sharing my observations, I’d love to hear any additional feedback, observations, and personal experiences you’d care to share in the comment section.

1) Focus on building trust.

The first two things you need to know are:

  1. The field of corporate instructional design is a service industry.
  2. The road to trust is a long (and submissive) one.

If you want a customer’s  business—contrary to rational thought—a successful ID must espouse the old marketing slogan, “the customer is always right.” The following corollary is also true, “An ID is only be “right” when the paying customer thinks it so.” The assumption here is that you want the customer’s business. Some customers are terrible for business, in which case you should politely drop them as clients. However, if you want a particular client’s business, you’re going to have to occasionally leave your expertise at the door and play by their rules. Bottomline: Your expertise will only be valued once trust has been established.

Before trust can be earned, IDs ought to think of themselves as indentured servants to their clients or project managers. Creative freedom is a luxury that is earned, not assumed. Sound like a dreary life? That depends on your perspective. Happy IDs initially derive job satisfaction the same way golf caddies do when working with professional golfers. The same goes for the relationship between medieval squires and their knights. These professions find happiness by making their superiors look good, even when they boldly (and often ignorantly) dismiss the expert counsel given them. This metaphor of sovereign fealty is particularly important for IDs who are working with project managers for the first time. This includes burgeoning ID contractors, as well as experienced, in-house IDs who are new to a company.

Novice IDs, leave your grad school design theories and preconceived notions of establishing a common project goal at the door. Despite it being a best practice, most project managers (those whose job it is to relay messages from their higher ups) do not want your “better way of doing things” bungling their sacred scope, schedule, and/or budget. If you want your project ideas to eventually be heard, having the trust of the sponsoring client means everything. Trust is earned as you consistently deliver projects on scope, on time, and on budget. Bonus points for exceeding expectations in any of those categories. See my previous post illustrating how to build trust with your PM.

Bottomline: The more trust you earn, the more creative control the PM/ClientPOC will relinquish for future projects. Only after customers are convinced that you can make them look good are they willing to be open to your crazy, new ideas from the start of a project.

2) Develop a culture of service within your group.


Like these poor customer service reps, IDs are too often perceived by project managers as potential obstacles or even enemies rather than adoring vassals. It’s your job to change their mind. To prevent the perpetuation of this stigma, IDs ought to establish a culture of service within their team or organization. Here are a few ways an organization can be seen as service-minded by their clients.

  • Publish a mission statement for customers to see with service as a core value. Externally promote your service-oriented brand before engagement on each project. Email your project manager a link to your department’s values along with a personal note of support.
  • Internally incentivize excellent service. Possibly establish a review survey that results in rewards if you measure up. Offer social praise in office memos or plaques. Etc.
  • Invest in team building. Take the opportunity to define your roles. Potential miscommunications can be averted by having team members articulating their own role and the roles of all others on the team. This way you can work it out before toes get stepped on.
  • Rethink your organization’s name. Perhaps you could colloquially call yourself a “service shop” instead of a “department.” A shop is where people take orders to quickly solve others’ problems. A department is a bureaucratic machine designed to resist your interests.

3) Use cooperative language.


Even the most subtle of communications can promote partnership or divisiveness.

  • In any meetings, try to adjust your seating so that you are angled essentially anywhere other than directly opposite your business”partner”.
  • Use 3rd-person pronouns to promote partnership. First and second-person pronouns, like”me” and “you”, can perpetuate a competitive mentality. Use third-person pronouns (“we”) to invoke feelings of cooperation and unity. Rarely, in the scenario above, do the ID or client refer to their partnership as “we”.
  • Avoid using “war” vocabulary in all communications, especially with/about your point of contact. (E.g., “battle, fight, lose, attack, take flak, defend, capture, combat, lose ground, etc.) In all your communications, use positive, synergistic language that engenders the idea of cooperation and service.

4) Esse quam videri.


While the ID in the “fictional” story above appeared to demonstrate respect for the customer’s needs, he/she unfortunately did it in word alone. The ID would think one thing, then say something completely different. Duplicity is toxic to relationships.  Despite your sense of justice and rationale screaming one thing, I promise you’ll be happier if you:

  • Stop mentally belittling those with whom you work.
  • Relax your expectations of others and focus on what you can control.
  • Work at having integrity in your dealings with others. Mean what you say.
  • If you are about to say something mean or untrue, hold your tongue. Instead, identify and call out the best in everyone. Eventually, your thought processes will adapt and finding good in others will become a habit.
  • Watch out for the tell-tale signs of duplicitousness in yourself:
    • If you catch yourself thinking one thing and saying another.
    • If you speak poorly about clients behind their backs.
    • If you regularly tell yourself that you hate what you do.
    • If you feel trapped—like there’s no one you can talk to about your work problems.

If you’ve observed any of these cancers in yourself, you’ve got to change—either yourself or your environment (i.e., get a new job). Now, I’m not a quitter. But I do advocate it in some circumstances.Some people aren’t at a place in life where they can be performance ponies for their companies. Yes, I just called employees who haven’t yet earned trust broken show horses. Granted, some stallions were dealt a poor hand. Some simply don’t have the skills (yet) to cope in a standard workforce environment. And some horses were born to be wild. I’ve seen enough Millennials struggle in business (and tragic horse films like Buck, and Man from Snowy River) to know—if you can’t be controlled, you get put down. So do yourself a favor, shape up or ship out. If you can’t adapt, don’t stay in a joyless job. Start making moves now to get yourself out of that toxic environment into a place where you can choose to be happy.

5) Be Patient.

Many workers who hop from job-to-job, who search for a place where they “make a difference,” never find it. In many cases, the problem is sadly with them. In many instances, these good folks fail to realize that it takes more that 8 months with a company to start to feel like you are making an impact. Here are some tips that helped me cross that dessert:

  • I sought out a mentor. Others have been where you are and have gotten through it. Their perspective can be like life-sustaining water in a dessert. But unlike the dessert, there are potential mentors everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to turn to a non-human coping mechanism of choice (e.g., video games, social media, media binging, drugs or alcohol, pornography, anything that offers you that both numbing and elating dopamine rush). Connecting with a human helped me non-destructively cope with my frustrations. (FYI, mentoring/coaching never decreased the actual problem. But, with his help, I was able to view it in it’s proper perspective and push forward with hope in a better future.)
  • I aligned my efforts with my organization’s strategy. You may feel like you’re not helping because you’re not. You may be spending most of your time at work doing things you think are important. But if you really want to be noticed and “make a difference,” you’ll need to strategically shift your time and energy to doing things that align with the mission of your org. (It’s employees who are able to see how they can best contribute to the organization’s overall strategy on a daily basis that are typically first in line for promotions.)
  • I learned/improved a skill set. Maybe you don’t have the chops to contribute yet. (I know that may cause cognitive dissonance for some Millennials with huge egos bred into them.) I’m sorry. But we can all do our jobs more effectively. Intrinsically motivated workers can find great satisfaction in applying lean sigma six principles to their personal sphere.
  • I learned “it’s not always about me.” We need to connect with others at work. This means doing what it takes to value others. Find out about their lives. Ask how you can help them. I read yesterday on Reddit about a study that claims that two-year-olds find the same value in helping others as they do in helping themselves. Let’s re-discover that.


Instructional design is a terrific field with tremendous potential to help people and organizations. And like any profession, if you want to achieve greatness, you’ve got to pay your dues. (E.g., Lawyers don’t join firms and immediately become partners.) Freedom and autonomy at work come only after you’ve proven yourself to be a reliable asset to those you serve. During that necessary period of servitude, don’t be an academic know-it-all. Don’t miss the mark by valuing what’s “right” above your relationship with the client. Be service minded. Speak well, act well, and you will do well.


About bryantanner

I'm obsessed with learning via the appropriate technology. My professional mission is to effectively deliver instruction to learners in a way that yields the greatest results for all stakeholders involved.
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