You know how writers are always trying to twist the biggest pop culture conversation of the moment to fit their niche theme? Well … this month’s column is all about Avengers: Endgame. I’m writing it after seeing it opening night, but you won’t read it until at least three weeks after the movie’s release. It has likely grossed well over $2 billion by now, meaning hardcore fans are on their third or fourth viewings. That said, I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t had the chance to get to the theater. So, just in case ...

This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Avengers: Endgame!

Did you know Avengers: Endgame is actually inspired by the real-life story of L&D? It’s true! As I watched this culmination of 10 years and 22 films worth of storytelling, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between The Avengers’ struggles and those we face everyday in workplace learning. The best part is, because this is a superhero movie after all, there are plenty of practical nuggets we can take away from the adventures of Iron Man, Black Widow, Thor, Hawkeye, Hulk, and Captain America.

Here are seven lessons L&D pros can take from the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to make sure you deliver clear value and don’t risk getting “snapped” out of existence within your own organization.

1. Get proactive

At the beginning of the movie, Tony is in a less-than-super mood after having just lost to Thanos and spending three weeks floating in space. “But that's what we do, right? Our best work after the fact? We're The Avengers? Not The Prevengers, right?” He’s bemoaning that fact that they were unable (or unwilling) to take preventive steps to thwart an attack of this magnitude. They made an attempt in Avengers: Age of Ultron but did not move forward after that effort failed (to put it lightly).

We do the same thing in L&D. We wait until we are summoned because an operational problem has risen to the top of the priority list. We deliver safety training AFTER someone gets hurt. We deliver sales training AFTER the team misses its goal. We deliver compliance training AFTER the company fails an audit. If we really want to be partners within the operation, we need to start using data to find and address problems BEFORE they negatively impact the organization and the people we support. Artificial intelligence, microlearning and adaptive learning principles can make L&D more proactive and provide greater business value.

2. Don’t assume a solution

“Last time you didn’t have me.” The remaining Avengers get right back to work, now with Captain Marvel at the helm. They chase Thanos down in his retirement garden with a less-than-wholly-thought-out plan to get the Infinity Stones back to undo the snap. It actually goes really well, except for the fact that they didn’t anticipate that Thanos would be smart enough to destroy the stones once he no longer needed them. Dun dun dun!

How often do we run into “battle” with a learning solution that doesn’t hit the mark? The Avengers acted on emotion. We tend to act based on timeliness, political pressure, and a desire to show our value. But in the end, making assumptions doesn’t help us, the organization, or the employees. This is another situation where an improved data approach can help L&D quickly validate potential solutions. For example, by applying a modern learning framework that includes reinforcement and practice activities, L&D can continuously assess employee knowledge and skills. Then, when training is requested by a stakeholder, we can inform the discussion with data that proves whether or not people already know what they are supposed to do on the job. We can then take on a more consultative role and provide solutions that target the true causes of operational problems.

3. Try small experiments

Five … Years … Later … The Avengers took one big shot at reversing the snap. But when that didn’t work, they apparently went into maintenance mode for half a decade. Without another grand idea, they didn’t have a way to move forward.

Do we make meaningful attempts to advance our practices on our own? Or do we wait for an external force to shove us forward? When we try to play catch-up, we make bad decisions. We get stuck with lousy technology. We buy content libraries that no one uses. We put our teams at risk. Rather than always trying to swing for the fences, L&D pros must look for small but meaningful ways to improve. We must escape our organizational bubbles and engage the larger professional community to see how others are solving similar problems, even if they don’t work in the same industry. We must attempt small experiments while always considering how we can scale a new idea to the entire organization. If we don’t continuously improve, our operational partners will find ways to solve performance problems—without us.

4. Find your experts

Are you seriously telling me that your plan to save the universe is based on Back to the Future?” Time travel usually sounds like a silly idea, but this is a world inhabited by wizards and a talking tree. Upon returning from the Quantum Realm, Ant Man brings his “time heist” suggestion to The Avengers. He’s not a physicist. He doesn’t have all of the details worked out. But his practical experience demonstrated a potential solution for an otherwise unsolvable problem. He just can’t make it work by himself. So, the group went to their “big brains": Bruce and Tony.

L&D pros need to be L&D experts. But we can’t know everything. We just need to be “dangerous” in our ability to apply new concepts in our work. We can then rely on experts to help us get the details right. The good news is that you likely already have experts within your organization. The smartest people on topics like data and AI just don’t tend to work in L&D. Find them. Make friends. Build trust. Invite them to play during your experiments. Leverage them to advance your team’s knowledge.

5. Foster trust

Bruce has to go looking for help twice during the movie. The two interactions take noticeably different turns. He is quickly able to bring “thicc Thor” around to his side, but he is forced to have an astral science debate with The Ancient One before she gives up the Time Stone. The difference: Bruce had a well-established relationship with Thor that was built on trust, largely from their Ragnorok experience. That trust didn’t exist with The Ancient One, so he was forced to rely on his intelligence to influence the desired outcome.

L&D pros need to build relationships with subject matter experts and stakeholders before they need their help. This will show our true commitment to their work and help us better understand the context in which they will apply our solutions. Attend department and project meetings that don’t require training support. Take people to lunch. Share ideas and resources openly and continuously. Prove your expertise before you need to convince people of it.

6. Anticipate roadblocks

Bad Nebula!?!? I didn’t see that coming! And neither did The Avengers. She was a known baddie during the time and in the general region to which good Nebula and War Machine traveled. But they failed to consider this potential threat with near-disastrous results.

This is another reason why L&D needs to build solid relationships with subject matter experts at all levels of their organizations. We are often too far removed from the day-to-day to really understand what may or may not work. We need help from front line employees, managers, and functional specialists to assess the potential of our solutions. If we don’t take an ecosystem approach to our work and realize the interconnected nature of the modern workplace, we will miss something (and Thanos will surprise attack our superhero headquarters).

7. Take the brunt

“But I … am … Iron Man.” Tony makes the big sacrifice to save the team he helped create. As Doctor Strange makes clear, he’s there for this reason and this reason alone. He fulfills his purpose despite everything else he has going on in his life.

OK—this lesson is a bit on the heavy-handed side. L&D pros should make decisions that favor the needs of front line employees, not themselves. Too often, we make technology, content and strategy decisions based on our preferences and capabilities rather than those of the people we support. We may need to manage more content. We may need to administer another platform besides the LMS. But if extra effort on our part provides the support needed on the front line, then we need to take the hit and make it happen.

Avengers: Endgame is three hours long. Of course a column based on it was going to be pretty lengthy, too. Hopefully, you were able to manage restroom breaks accordingly for both. :-)

L&D pros aren’t superheroes. We’re not Spider Man going face-to-face with the latest villain. We’re Ned, the “guy in the chair,” finding clever ways to help the real heroes win the battle on the front lines. Organizations will always be changing. There will always be new challenges for employees to overcome. If we keep these lessons in mind and evolve our practices to fit the current realities of the workplace, we may just help save the day after all and earn our rightful place in the next sequel.

Oh … I almost forgot. Ahem … L&D - ASSEMBLE!

From the editor: Speaking of evolving our practices...

The eLearning Guild's Realities360 Conference & Expo 2019 has dozens of sessions that can help you to:

  • Find examples of practices that make L&D more proactive and provide greater business value;
  • Inform your discussions with stakeholders;
  • Try small experiments;
  • Find experts and begin building relationships with them;
  • Take an ecosystem approach; and
  • Make decisions based on the needs of front-line employees.

Register today!