What’s the difference between an instructional designer (ID) and a lead or senior instructional designer? It’s more than simply having more knowledge of design principles and learning theory!

In reviewing job listings for senior IDs, I observed that some of the additional skills that hiring managers require are the operational and business aspects of instructional design including:

  • Working collaboratively with the team and across the business
  • Working on complex, multi-deliverable projects
  • Providing consultative services and leadership
  • Contributing to an environment of innovation and overall excellence

These skills aren’t typically part of an instructional design graduate program but are critical to progressing to the top of the field. In this article, I’d like to offer some tips on developing these business skills, specifically as they pertain to instructional design.


Collaboration is critical to creating a stellar learning program. A design culture of spontaneous brainstorming, quick stand-up meetings, and cross-pollination of ideas is ideal for innovation. Organizations like Citrix, Proctor & Gamble, McKinney Advertising Agency, and others have dedicated valuable office real estate to creating open work spaces for teams to brainstorm. These unconventional, flex spaces may contain movable seating and whiteboards, markers, flipcharts, post-its, pipe cleaners for fidgety hands, construction paper, crayons, and more. Fun virtual environments like Google Hangouts work effectively as well.

Learning-project teams are creative and are eager to contribute to a project as early as possible in the life cycle. A lead ID is in a good position to set the stage for this kind of collaboration and to cultivate it.

Complex projects

The most extensive eLearning projects have a high value to the organization and a high number of learners. Managers often task lead instructional designers with these top-tier projects. Complex projects require a big-picture focus on outcomes as well as the ability to zoom in on project details, so effective communication skills are vital.

Consider creating a formal pitch communicating your proposed learning solutions (after team brainstorming of course) to your supervisor, stakeholders, and subject matter experts (SMEs). Include data to support your ideas, as well as visuals, maps, and prototypes that help explain the creative concepts. Provide a road map that shows how the solution will enhance motivation and how you will measure effectiveness (e.g., usability testing, pilots, observations). Post-pitch, collect feedback and revise. Collaboration with and agreement from multiple parties at key milestones is the best way for the entire team to feel ownership and to set the project up for success.

Consultative leadership

What is a consultative leader? Jim Hornikel, director of training and development for Bold New Directions, states:

  • There are two main sides to this practice: incoming and outgoing. To be consultative invites the incoming. You are aware your team members have lots of experience and knowledge that, if you garner it, you get lots more information to work with in making your critical decisions. A consultative leader also consults. That is, you have important information to give to your team members, and they will be more effective if they have your information to work with.

Instructional designers who exhibit consultative leadership:

  • Maintain a focus on the greater good—on the learner, and on how well the learning program will help achieve the organization’s business goals
  • Develop relationships with stakeholders as well as internal project teams
  • Embody a can-do attitude and practice creative problem-solving
  • Share what they have learned with others through formal or informal mentoring
  • Ask important questions that no one else does
  • Set expectations and provide role clarity


At Weejee Learning, we like to spark our internal brainstorming meetings by asking, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if…?” Wouldn’t it be awesome if this initiative was driven by user-generated content? Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could build an entire campaign around this program including movie-trailer videos and incentives? Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could produce an interactive video? Wouldn’t it be awesome if we created an augmented-reality game using transmedia storytelling? Today’s technologies enable unlimited possibilities for innovation and fun. Seek out ways you can make learning engaging. Look not only within the training industry but also to other fields such as film making, music, and advertising. Stay curious!

(Tracy Bissette is teaching a six-week Guild Academy course beginning February 26, The Business of Instructional Design. To learn more or to register, visit http://www.elearningguild.com/content.cfm?selection=doc.3170)