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.

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 service-minded culture within your team.


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) Develop Patience.

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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