5 Common Action Mapping Mistakes and How to Fix Them

Over 90% of employees say they won’t quit their jobs if they get learning and development opportunities. And 92% of them believe workplace training positively influences their job engagement.

Over 90% of employees say they won’t quit their jobs if they get learning and development opportunities 1. And 92% of them believe workplace training positively influences their job engagement.

When we consider the cost of employee churn, these figures tell us one thing: regular, effective training directly impacts your company’s bottom line.

The real question is how can you streamline design training to create effective corporate learning experiences that pay off. The answer is Action Mapping.

Despite its widespread (and well-deserved) popularity, some less-experienced instructional designers trip up when they start using this approach.

That’s why I’ve created this guide, to address common action mapping mistakes so you can streamline and optimize your processes and build better training.

What is Action Mapping?

Action Mapping is an approach to training design created by L&D leader Cathy Moore. Her goal was to help instructional designers do the following:

  • Identify performance problems and determine the best solution
  • Make tangible improvements to business performance
  • Decide when training is necessary (and when it isn’t)

In the words of Cathy herself:

“It’s a mashup of performance consulting and backward design, with a focus on real-world behaviors rather than assessment questions.”

When using the Action Mapping approach, you should ask the following questions:

  • What’s the problem? How will we know if we’ve fixed it?
  • What do employees need to do, and why aren’t they doing it?
  • How can we help learners practice what they need to do?
  • What information do they need to complete the practice activity?

Benefits of Action Mapping

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, but one of the biggest frustrations instructional designers face is being asked to turn huge chunks of information into a course.

When this happens, we run into a number of issues like cognitive overload, disengaged learners, and training that ignores the root cause of performance issues.

Action Mapping addresses many of these issues. Here are just some of the advantages for organizations and learners:

Business benefitsLearner benefits
Addresses tangible performance gaps and directly aligns with business goalsPrioritizes targeted learning that helps employees perform their jobs better
Shifts the focus from information sharing to performance improvementReduces cognitive overload, empowering learners to be more engaged and efficient
Streamlines the training design process, cutting development time and the associated costsThe focus on practice activities and real-world simulations reinforces learning and enhances knowledge retention
Promotes relevant and engaging training, leading to better knowledge retention, participation, and overall performance It equips learners with the practical knowledge and confidence they need to be more productive and successful
Overview of the benefits of Action Mapping for learners and organizations.

Main Action Mapping mistakes and how to fix them

There’s a reason why most seasoned instructional designers (IDs) use Action Mapping – it works! But, there are some common mistakes novice designers make.

I’m breaking down the biggest errors and how to avoid them.

Five common action mapping mistakes new IDs tend to make.

1. Too much focus on content, not enough on performance gaps

Many IDs can get bogged down in mapping out all the information employees need to know. This leads to a knowledge dump.

As Cathy says, “We aren’t information designers.” So, getting into information overload territory can lead to ineffective training courses that miss the point.

As instructional designers, we analyze organizational performance issues and design learning experiences that address them. We don’t just turn a fifty-page deck into a clickable online course.

Let’s look at an example of Action Mapping gone wrong:

An ID gets a request to create new product training. They get a document as long as their arm, packed with information about the product and its features. And so, they dump all this information about the product’s shiny new features into an online course template, stick in a few images, and call it a day.

This is not Action Mapping.

The fix:

The ID needs to drill down and consider who the training is for and the actions they need to take to sell these features to customers.

The first step is to define how you want performance to look after the training and the actions employees should be able to take. Next, look at the skill gaps that are keeping them from doing that now. Keep this as your North Star while designing training content.

2. Confusing action and knowledge

When IDs are new to Action Mapping, they tend to confuse knowledge (concepts, theories, frameworks) with measurable behaviors.

This leads us into murky waters where we lean on broad concepts target than actual behaviors.

One example of this is creating a training program for sales staff on a broad topic like “Understanding customers’ needs.”

When we have a vague concept like this, we end up with diluted training concepts that do very little to address real-life performance.

The trick is to translate this broad topic into something tangible and behavior-driven, like “identify what’s holding your customer back during sales interactions.”

Now we can hone in on actions and start designing training experiences that deliver measurable impact.

The fix:

Take the time to differentiate between knowledge and action. Then, make sure the actions you list are clear, tangible, and measurable.

When in doubt, refer back to the four key questions we covered at the start of this guide. In particular, how will we know if we have solved the performance issue? What actions will the learner take to show us they understand the topic?

3. Not finding the root cause

Action Mapping is only successful if you pinpoint the root cause of performance issues in your organization.

So, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there a cultural issue?
  • Do the employees have the time and resources they need to perform?
  • What’s really holding them back? Is it a lack of knowledge?

The only way to get these answers is by asking your learners. That’s where anonymous learner surveys and feedback interviews come in. This data will give you accurate insight into what the root cause is and whether training will address it.

What you don’t want to do is guess.

Making assumptions about why there’s an issue could result in creating unnecessary training, which is both time-consuming and costly.

Let’s say you assume the cause of the performance gap is that employees don’t have the necessary knowledge. You create a whole training program, and nothing changes. Why? Because the actual problem is an outdated system or process that’s creating bottlenecks.

The fix:

Drill down to the root cause of the performance gap. What are employees missing? If it’s knowledge, design training. But, if it’s motivation or the right resources, then it’s not a training issue.

It’s a tale as old of time in the world of L&D: we’re asked to create a training program as a bandaid for a much deeper cultural issue. Action Mapping can free us from this burden and provide a framework for deciding when training is the answer.

4. Neglecting the “why”

For maximum Action Mapping success, instructional designers need to show the “why” behind each training or action.

Just like any other group of individuals, your staff wants to know what’s in it for them. And it’s our job to show them.

This will motivate employees because they understand how each action they take during the training will benefit them. It also shows that the training isn’t just a box-ticking exercise in their onboarding program.

Speaking of onboarding, let’s take a common example from this type of training.

Your CEO has created an interesting strategy video for employees. So you add it to your program.

The action is clear – to watch the five-minute video. But the “why” is murky.

Now try adding a brief explanation of how this strategy video will give the learner a better understanding of how their role and individual KPIs impact overall business performance.

You might want to customize this for different business functions to really show how this action (watching the video) will pay off in the long term.

The fix:

Instructional designers wear many hats. Sometimes we even venture into sales.

When we help learners understand the big picture and sell the “why” behind every action we ask them to take, we motivate them to engage with the training.

So, ask yourself, what are the outcomes and consequences for each action you want learners to take?

5. Assuming all learners are the same

Whether you subscribe to the theory of different learning types or not, I think we can all agree that learners are different.

One of the biggest Action Mapping mistakes new IDs make is assuming their learners are starting from the same point. When we do this, we also assume they need the same level of support and information.

The truth is very different.

Some learners will already have a strong foundational knowledge of a topic. Some will pull from other life experiences. Some will struggle. Others are just more efficient learners.

All this is to say that creating a “one-size-fits-all” action map is not going to work.

The fix:

Segment learners based on their needs and experience levels. Then, tailor your action map to suit these groups.

To do this, you need to first get to know your audience.

The learner surveys and interviews I mentioned earlier can help you achieve this. Analyzing LMS reports will also give you insight into your audience, their behaviors, and their knowledge level.

Once you’ve done this, you can start tailoring your action map in the following ways:

  • Create different starting points in your learning path
  • Begin training courses with a short quiz to test learners’ knowledge of the topic
  • Include branching options based on job role or experience level so advanced learners can skip ahead
  • Offer supplementary resources to support inexperienced learners or those struggling with the material

Final thoughts

I hope these Action Mapping mistakes and fixes help you optimize your current learning experience design processes. When done right, this battle-tested approach to instructional design can garner significant, tangible training results for your organization.

Still not sure if Action Mapping will work for your project? Take the quiz now.

Nicola Wiley

By Nicola Wylie

Nicola Wylie is a learning industry expert who loves sharing in-depth insights into the latest trends, challenges, and technologies.

  1. https://www.devlinpeck.com/content/employee-training-statistics ↩︎