I was in a conversation the other day with Lynda.com’s Koreen Olbrish and Float Learning’s Chad Udell. We were poking at a workshop on gamification with a description that promised: “You will build a learning game in 60 minutes!” When Koreen said, “I could build a game in 60 minutes,” Chad responded, “Yes, 60 minutes and the rest of your life up to that point.”*   

We deal with that a lot in this business: the oversimplification of complex tasks, the marginalization of hard-earned knowledge. It often takes the form of a problem I think of as “develop before design.” People want a quick tool that will crank out a beautiful and effective eLearning program without putting any time into crafting a sound solution or a sound treatment for the content. Or they want a product that will take a static, template-based, text-heavy slide deck and, with the push of a magic button, turn it into an engaging, performance-enhancing course. The expectation is akin to driving a Kia into a carwash and expecting it to come out a Lexus.  

I hear it when people say to colleagues, “My kid could design a logo for a lot less than you charge!” or “I want an online simulation like that one you built for Acme, you know, with characters and voices and a good story. I’m guessing that just takes a day or two, right?” Or, “You have two graduate degrees in training and development? Really? Can you come teach my people how to do great instructional design? We’re having a staff meeting Wednesday at 3:00 PM.”  I see it all the time in training session descriptions: Ninety-minute or half-day programs in which attendees will “learn to build an effective team,” “change organizational culture,” or “build a mobile app.” 

Last year an article in the Atlantic, reporting on the success of the Obama campaign’s engineers, quoted one as saying, “It’s not complicated, it’s just hard.” And that’s the thing: Good practice is made up of work, and thought, and mistakes, and time. Things that look easy in the hands of a skilled professional are often the end result of years of practice and experience: According to Peter Sims’s Little Bets, Chris Rock spends as much as a year polishing a new joke in small venues, publicly failing more often than not.  

Finding an interesting eLearning treatment for dry content often comes not from a stroke of brilliance but from years of learning to sift through stakeholder requests and experts’ war stories and performance issues and case studies. Sure, you could go to a half-day workshop that will teach you to create a catapult game. Probably someday a simple authoring tool that will let you build a catapult game will exist. But it won’t be Angry Birds. (And by the way: Game companies, including Rovio, develop and launch many games. Only one became Angry Birds. Success often involves a lot of failure.)

The “Nuts and Bolts” part of this? It’s meant as advice to newish folks: A huge part of your job will be expectations management. There’s nothing wrong with speeding up a clunky process or streamlining steps or circumventing barriers. There’s nothing wrong with finding an easier way to do something. There are tools that can make your life much easier. I don’t know that everything takes the 10,000 hours some authors say, but good practice will require … practice. When you’re looking at building an app in 15 minutes, or creating a game in an hour, or your boss comes back from a trade show on fire about building “engaging, interactive courses” at the rate of 10 a day, learn to recognize the parts that are easy and the parts that are not. Recognize that you need to design before developing. Recognize that sometimes “rapid” means “plus all your life up till now.”

*Disclosure: When I said I wanted to repeat this conversation, Chad said he had heard the “rest of your life” line somewhere and wanted to be clear that it was not his—it’s been variously attributed to both Picasso and Warhol.

Thanks to Koreen Olbrish, Julie Dirksen, and Chad Udell.

Madrigal, A. “When the Nerds Go Marching In.” The Atlantic, November 16, 2012. Available at http://m.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/11/when-the-nerds-go-marching-in/265325/. Mentioned by Russell Davies: http://russelldavies.typepad.com/planning/2013/01/its-not-complicated-its-just-hard.html

Sims, Peter. Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. Free Press, 2012.

Up for some Twitter fun? The #lrnbk chat will be discussing Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habit beginning July 9. Details here.