12 cool ways to use scenarios

Desperate woman wants to know what happens next in scenarioDecision-making scenarios aren’t just for elearning. Here are 12 ideas for other ways you can use branched scenarios to help people practice solving problems.

First, some vocabulary. Each “decision point” in a branching scenario contains the following:

  • The result of the previous decision, such as, “The forklift continues to speed toward the plate glass window.”
  • The stem and options for a new decision, such as, “What should you do?” followed by three or four actions.

Face-to-face training

One of the great benefits of a challenging branched scenario is that it provokes discussion. No more glassy-eyed stares! Some ideas:

  1. Go through an online scenario together: Project the scenario on a screen and as a group decide what option to take at each point.
  2. Act it out: Assign roles in the story and have participants read and act their lines once the group has decided what they should do.
  3. Go through the scenario in small groups: Divide participants into groups of four or so. Have them work through the scenario as a group, then report back to the larger group why they think they got the result they did.
  4. Require someone to defend each option: To bring the discussion to a deeper level, assign each option to a participant: “Bob, you’ll argue for option B every time, whether you agree with it or not. Give it your best shot!” You can do this in large or small groups. If you have four options at each decision point, you might create groups of four and, before they start the scenario, have each person choose an option to always defend.
  5. Ask the group to improve the scenario. Ideally, you tested an earlier version of the scenario on a sample of your audience and improved it based on their suggestions. Now do it again, but as a learning exercise. You could ask what options participants wanted to have but didn’t, how the plot could be made more realistic, and how failure and success should be measured.
  6. Have groups design their own scenarios. After going through and discussing a scenario you wrote, form small groups and have them each design a branching scenario for their colleagues. You might offer a list of story ideas for them to choose from, each offering the opportunity to closely examine the complex decisions that happen on the job. The design project should probably take place over a couple of weeks rather than in one intensive session, and each group’s deliverable could be a simple, text-only PowerPoint or Twine scenario that’s run at another gathering of the full group. You’ll need to win the participation of managers and subject matter experts, but considering how deeply we have to examine every decision to write a good scenario, this exercise could be really powerful.
Sample from a paper-based branching scenario

A branching scenario can be as simple as a printout, with one decision point on each page.
This low-tech scenario inspired intense discussion in a class at West Point.

Email and mobile

Keep your audience engaged by feeding them one scene a day. It’s an email soap opera!

  1. Send an email episode each day to participants showing the results of their last decision and presenting them with another decision in the story. Have them click an HTML link in the email to register their choice — and make them wait until the next day to see how it turns out. You could set this up with an email auto-responder, which your marketing staff should be familiar with, although the branching could be more complex than they’re used to. The email could be plain text or use HTML and images.
  2. Use text messages to deliver one decision point a day to a mobile audience. Participants can make their choice by sending the appropriate code from their phone. Entire novels have been delivered through text message!
  3. Encourage discussion throughout the run of the soap opera. For example, you could set up a discussion forum, assign some people to add posts to keep it lively, and include links to it in the emails or text messages.
  4. Have the scenario play out in real time: If you want people to practice making decisions in a process that plays out over weeks, and the lapse of time is important, you could insert realistic delays between the decision points. You could send emails from scenario characters or other messages that provide the same kind of information that people would receive if this were a real situation, or remind them to perform the same monitoring that they would need to do in real life so they can make a good decision at the next point.

Audio and video

Are podcasts popular in your organization? Are you allowed to use YouTube? Go for it! You might also set up a discussion forum as described above or otherwise encourage people to talk about the scenario as it unfolds.

  1. Record an audio file of each decision point and its options. When participants click a link to choose an option, they receive the file for the next decision point, either immediately or after a realistic lapse of time. You might use participants’ colleagues as actors in the scenario to increase its appeal.
  2. Create a branched video story: Create a separate video for each decision point, and then use YouTube’s annotations feature to link to each option at the end of the video. Here’s an example. If you can’t use YouTube, this tool designed for marketers might work for you.

Make it controversial, and don’t forget the debrief!

One of the strengths of scenarios is that they inspire discussion. Encourage that discussion by intentionally making your scenario not only challenging but also a little controversial, such as by failing to include a popular option or by making a common mistake so appealing that a lot of people fall for it.

Finally, I don’t recommend using scenarios alone, no matter what setting you put them in. Learners need a debrief, some structured way to discuss, draw conclusions, build a model, and identify how they’re going to change what they do.

What did I miss? What’s another way to use scenarios to get people thinking and talking? Let us know in the comments!

Scenario design workshop open for registration

Become a scenario design master! Starting Oct. 15, I’m offering Scenario design: In-depth and hands-on, a four-session online course. We’ll meet for 90 minutes starting at 1 PM US Eastern time on Oct. 15, 17, 22, and 24. Please see this page for details and registration.

Australia workshops open for registration

  • Nov. 13, Sydney: Training design master class for training managers at the Learning@Work conference
  • Nov. 26, Melbourne: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet
  • Nov. 29, Sydney: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet

Comments

  1. Nancy Smith says:

    Thanks for this post, Cathy. I am going to propose using the face-to-face ideas you present to teach our training coordinators how to use scenarios when they develop training. Most of them are not teachers or professional trainers, they are just assigned the job as an extra duty. Using such a discussion forum during our annual meeting should be a lively and interesting way to train-the-trainers on how to engage their audiences in realistic, useful learning events.

  2. Andy says:

    It’s interesting that the face-to-face examples use groups a lot, whereas when we think of elearning we tend to think of it as one person in front of a monitor. Group discussion can cleary help people go deeper especially in softer skills.

    I’d love to see some elearning dedsigned for 4-5 people gathered around a monitor and working their way through an actiity (a small) group. Get a few of these groups and there’s the potential for teams.

  3. Elizabeth Kent says:

    Hello, Cathy! I am enjoying your site! This post on different scenario ideas in training will be huge help in my training toolbox. Often I am asked for training that will help draw quiet students in so that they are more interactive in their training. With an ongoing training scenario, even the most intraverted student can’t help but join the team and contribute. Your ideas of acting it out by assigning roles to each learner helps the shy ones and those not completely engaged in the training join the team. With a scripted portion of the scenario, they read what their characters say and can therefore put themselves into their shoes.
    The other idea I like is having a group come up with their own scencarios after going through the one provided by the trainer. I think this would work really well in a situation where the team members are opinionated about a subject and cannot reach a conclusive resolution for a problem.
    In this scenario training, you have indicated several uses of technology to keep the momentum going, or as you’ve posted, “…an email soap opera!” In the company where I work, we have many field technicians that use an Iphone and could gather great benefits in this type of training!

  4. Simon Blair says:

    I’m putting the finishing touches on an e-Learning course which relies heavily on scenarios. I used branching video – similar to what you describe, but all in the course (YouTube in our corporate setting).

    I’ve had an idea kicking around in my head for a few years. Imagine combining several of the approaches you describe into a single course, where some of it comes in via e-mail, some by text message and voice mail and some of it is delivered via video. Can’t wait to give it a try.

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