Many instructional designers advise starting an eLearning project with goals—learning goals, a clear definition of what you want learners to know, do, and understand once they have completed training. Some back up a bit and advise asking why the training is needed, or even if training is the correct approach.

What would happen if IDs turned all of that around—and instead asked what they were hoping to avoid with the eLearning? That’s the premise of inversion thinking.

What is inversion thinking?

Inversion thinking, popularized by investor and businessman Charlie Munger, is essentially a strategy for minimizing or avoiding failure. When investing, the idea is obviously to avoid investing in losing stocks or businesses. Rather than asking what strategy (or investment) might succeed, the idea is to look for what might fail or lead to failure—and avoid it.

A real-life example is safe driving. Rather than focus on what makes for a safe driver, think about what you want to avoid: accidents and breakdowns.

How might you do that? Some possibilities are:

  • Maintain your vehicle—oil changes, tune-ups, proper tire pressure, etc.
  • Don’t drive while distracted or impaired—put down the phone, call Lyft when you’ve been drinking, etc.
  • Drive defensively—don’t speed, use headlights, maintain safe following distance, etc.

In the corporate world, organizations might figure out what a poor manager does, then coach managers to avoid those behaviors. Or list characteristics of under-performing employees, and provide training, mentoring, or corrective action to rout out those behaviors.

Bigger-picture questions might revolve around avoiding common mistakes or analyzing what a company is doing that prevents it from being innovative. Rather than guessing what will attract customers, an inversion thinker might list actions that could alienate or offend customers, driving them away.

In an eLearning context, the key questions would center on getting learners to engage with training and making that training more effective.

eLearning pain points

Effective training should solve specific problems. A conventional approach to design would start with defining specific behaviors learners should exhibit after training. Using an inverted approach, the eLearning design and development team would instead identify behaviors or outcomes they hope to avoid. These might, depending on circumstances, include:

  • Safety incidents
  • Harassing or discriminatory behavior in the workplace
  • Violations of regulations
  • Delivering sub-par service or products to customers

The specifics will vary from organization to organization.

However, some learner pain points cross industries, exist in companies of all sizes, and are shared by learners of all generations, levels of experience, and degrees of tech-savviness.

Pretty much all IDs want to avoid:

  • Annoying their learners
  • Creating eLearning that causes learners to procrastinate and avoid training
  • Wasting learners’ time
  • Ineffective training

Avoiding failure in L&D

According to blogger and consultant James Clear, inversion thinking “is different than working backward or ‘beginning with the end in mind.’ Those strategies keep the same goal and approach it from a different direction. Meanwhile, inversion asks you to consider the opposite of your desired result. … You can learn just as much from identifying what doesn't work as you can from spotting what does. What are the mistakes, errors, and flubs that you want to avoid?”

Specific scenarios aside, L&D professionals can certainly look at the common pain points listed above and think about how to avoid them.

Why learners avoid training

What annoys learners to the point that they actively avoid training?

  • Required training that covers material they already know
  • Required training that covers material they don’t need to know
  • One-size-fits-all training that everyone has to do but that serves no-one’s needs
  • Long courses that pull them away from work

Instead, attract learners and boost engagement by:

Traits of ineffective training

What wastes learners’ time and is ineffective as training?

  • Long, text-heavy eLearning modules
  • eLearning that creates cognitive overload due to poor design, confusing navigation, or lack of structure
  • Focusing on completion rates, rather than learning or retention
  • Presenting eLearning in an inappropriate or inaccessible format

Make training more effective and relevant by:

Inversion thinking pays off

Clear points out that “avoiding mistakes is an under-appreciated way to improve.” Creating great training starts with avoiding all of the things that doom eLearning to failure.

Learn more about how to create effective, engaging training at The eLearning Guild’s eLearning Foundations Online Conference, December 11–12, 2019.