Are instructional designers doormats?

It’s tempting to think we should never question clients’ processes. However, we have a valuable outsider’s perspective that can help our clients improve performance through every means, not just through a course. Read more

Are instructional designers doormats?

By Cathy Moore

If your client said, “Please create a course about our impossibly complex process,” what would you say?

A. “Hmmm. That process looks really complicated. Is there any way to make it simpler?”


B. “No problem. Would you like fries with that?”

Often we know nothing about our client’s processes, and it’s tempting to think we should never question what they do.

But I like to think that our ignorance gives us a valuable outsider’s perspective that can help our clients improve performance through every means, not just through a course.

Our contribution can include everything from writing job aids to helping the client troubleshoot and simplify their processes.

For example, I was once asked to write a super-whiz-bang Flash course on how to use a client’s internal software. To write the course I needed to learn how to use the software, so I asked for their manual. They didn’t have one. A cheat sheet? Nothing. There was a dense, cryptic screen you could get if you typed “help” and that was it.

I obediently wrote the course. It took eons and cost the client a bucket of money, but I think the most valuable part was actually the PDF quick reference that I wrote in just two hours.

Now that I have more of a spine, I’d propose just starting with the quick reference to see if that removed the need for a course.

But isn’t it risky?

In his post on this topic, Allen Partridge asks,

To what extent do we need to understand a system’s complexity? And to what degree are we liable should we suggest the removal of a stage or step in a process which may lead to unanticipated complications?

This is where subject matter experts come in handy. Require them to approve everything, including any improvements to processes or job aids. They’re the experts on the system, not you, and they’re the ones who need to assume responsibility for it.

If you use a collaborative approach like action mapping and include SMEs from the beginning, they (ideally) should buy into the idea of performance improvement and offer their own ideas for improving the process.


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31 comments on “Are instructional designers doormats?

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  1. Cathy,
    thank you for this post and the provocative question. A lot of this “doormat” action comes from the fact that many IDs don’t see what they do as “professional” enough to warrant authority in questioning the client on their approach. The perception is that, with enough content to back them up, everyone can be an ID!

    What I think is essential to being an effective ID is knowing why a certain strategy works (better!) and then being able to demonstrate that. We cannot go on blaming the client if we never have the spine to speak up and show some results. Maybe that kind of ownership intimidates some IDs; they will have to eat the success along with any failure! And we are all so very scared to fail, right? Ha!

    I am a big fan and your perspective has greatly influenced how I design today. Thank you!

    1. Anna, I agree that many IDs don’t see their job as being professional enough to give them the “right” to ask more challenging questions of their client. This might be in part due to the specialization that occurs in many organizations, where IDs are treated as the go-to people for a course and nothing else. But as you point out, our job is to identify the best strategy, and that can mean taking the scary step of not immediately agreeing to do the work exactly as the client expects.

  2. Dear Cathy,

    I truly appreciate the post and the same message is what we are communicating across in our Organization too. When we do initial analysis on the request coming in, we understand the big picture of the request and suggest either a Help page like RoboHelp, PDF file, FAQ document, blended option of an hour of mentor with Demo etc and if required still we go in for a complete WBT for that application. This helped us to be not being the doormat. They key being with IDs to explain the propositions and value-adds to customer rather than passionately promoting WBT.

    Thanks for bringing up this points!
    Welcome your feedback on my thought!

    1. Kalyani, thanks for your comment. I agree that it’s helpful for us to focus on the benefits we provide rather than on a specific solution. We need to help clients see us as the people they go to when they need help improving performance, not the people they go to for web-based training.

  3. Cathy,
    The quick answer is “yes”, we have been door mats in the past, but that leads to the question “Why?”. Why are we perceived that way? I believe it’s because we are not perceived as business partners whose purpose is to drive business performance by helping employees become smarter. While most of us are well versed in Gagne, Mager and maybe Gilbert, most of us know nothing of Deming and Juran.

    The first thing out of my mouth would have been “I can help you with that” followed by “tell me how this is impacting business”. That second statement does two things. It puts the focus on business improvement and sets the stage for the way in which whatever intervention we create will be measured. If it’s not impacting business at all, then there’s a legitimate reason to question creating the project. After all, there are only so many resources available and we should be using them where they’ll have the greatest impact. Let’s assume that this project will have a big impact on business performance. We need to start acting like “performance physicians” getting to the root cause of the problem and solving for that. There’s always resistance to this of course, but it can be dealt with by asking the project sponsor where they’d rather spend their money; on a solution that doesn’t solve the problem and has to be redone or on up-front analysis that gets to the root cause?

    Does this work every time? No. Some managers want a training solution because that’s all they know or because it gives the appearence they’re trying to solve the problem. However, we, as performance improvement professionals, need to do a much better job a promoting our success when we’ve been able to do a proper root-cause analysis and solve for that. When it can be shown that we have helped a business unit improve it’s performance with credible data, managers will pay attention.

    1. David, thanks for your ideas. I agree completely that we’re not perceived as business partners and are not educated to be business partners. I’m with you on the need to ask immediately how the business is being affected (it’s the first step in action mapping) and having everything cascade from that. Unfortunately, as you point out, some managers want training because it’s what they’ve always done — or because it’s easier to throw training at a problem than to find and eradicate its root cause.

    2. From my experience it seems to vary from client to client. I completely agree with David that we really should be performance consultants, and the clients that see us as designers + consultant really get the best bang for the buck.

      Plus, often I find that the client/SME’s heads are so far in the weeds with the detail of their project, our fresh point of view can often help them see things in a different light.

      Simply my $0.02

  4. Some people have asked on Twitter how we can “grow a spine.” I like what Dick Handshaw has been saying about this. For example, in this post, he says we need to basically go out and court our clients as a consultant before they develop a pressing problem and get obsessed with training.

  5. Interesting post. I’ve never had a problem speaking up and asking why? about steps in a process, probably because I’m an internal employee and not a contractor. But I am usually greeted with the “what do you know?” reaction. That’s a tough question to get past. The answer is that I know enough to question “why” and expect that if you can’t answer, it’s an unnecessary step or at least one that could be done differently to make it less confusing, difficult, or costly. People seem to have emotional ties to their ways of doing things. I can’t figure out a way around that one and am experiencing some spine degeneration as a result.

    1. Maery Rose brings up a problem all of us have probably faced; the “what do you know about X” question asked in a confrontational way. My answer is always truthful; little or nothing. “You (client) are the Subject Matter Expert in X. I’m the Subject Matter Expert in Training & Development. Together we can create something of value for our employer”. In my company, “Telling” often passes for “Training”. People don’t really understand the difference so it takes some education to get them to see the difference.

      I, too, like what Dick Handshaw says about courting clients before they need us. That allows us to frame how we want others to perceive us instead of allowing others to “pigeon hole” us.

  6. You raised a thoughful question Cathy! Yes, sometimes IDs do get treated as door mats. But we need to break the shackles of our own mind first, before expecting the business, teams, or client to do so. I guess I see mysefl as a consultant – always have – always will. My job is to help my client and my learners. I don’t claim to be an expert in anything other than training. At times, we have to stick our heads out to let other people know this – but mostly – if we understand the business problem, create sensible solutions, and help learners learn – the clients do see us as a performance consultant.

    I have always aspired to be the trusted advisor for my clients suggesting them things that will ‘work’ rather than just ‘selling’ courses. It is about taking complete responsibility and not shying away from the consequences – positive or negative. I also don’t stop myself from telling the client when they are wrong. I feel they deserve to know if they are paying the dollars for me to advice them! The support of SMEs is crucial in this process. Like you rightly mentioned, if we include the SMEs right from the start, the ID and SME become a team. The good thing about our profession is that we can be as big or as small a fish in the pond as we want to be. If we focus on business, organization vision, performance – we can be an energizing consultant that drives learning and development through the organization. If we focus on courses, attendance and smily-sheets we can continue to be just another ID sitting at the corner. I trust that my collegues will make the right choice depending on how they perceive themselves!

    1. Taruna, I agree that it’s about taking responsibility and finding ways to give clients a viable solution to their problem, which might not be exactly the solution they’ve assumed that they need. You make an important point about the fact that we decide what our role is going to be — a performance consultant or a quiet course developer.

  7. Unfortunately, part of the reason that IDs are NOT perceived as business partners is due to the fact that companies hire people as IDs without the background or degree. If you develop a course or two at a bank without any instructional background….you are awarded an ID job.

    1. I agree and think that a big part of the problem is that many companies think instructional design and course production are the same thing. They advertise for instructional designers when what they really want are people to convert PowerPoints to courses without asking too many questions.

      Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that an instructional design degree will always produce a designer who can ask the right business questions. The programs I’ve looked at seem to focus on learning theory and the design of instructional materials rather than the larger picture of analyzing performance problems and using instruction to support business strategy. I’d be interested in hearing if anyone has felt that their ID degree prepared them well for this more consultative role.

      1. Great post Cathy! And I particularly agree with this comment. Early in my career, I was a training developer, not an ID. I simply executed some one else’s grand plan and push back was not expected, or appreciated.
        Now, as an ID, I believe it is my responsibility to question anything and everything that could result in performance improvements for my clients. As someone mentioned above, my outsider perspective can provide insights that the client is simply to close to the issue to see.
        I also agree that an instructional design degree does not necessarily teach these skills. I am frequently in a position to hire new IDs for my projects and I know that I tend to shy away from those with relatively “new” degrees in instructional design. It’s been my experience that freshly degree’d IDs tend to get so caught up in process and theory that they become ineffective in the real world. A few years of experience in the field tends to temper this problem, but I’d still rather see good samples from successful projects than an ID degree when it comes to hiring.

      2. Andrea, I’ve had the same experience when contracting or working with new IDs — it doesn’t seem like their degrees have prepared them for work in the business world. Like you, I’m more interested in samples of real-world projects, along with a description of the original performance problem and the design decisions that resulted.

      3. My answer, Cathy, is definitely not. Most, if not all, instructional design degrees come from college education departments. There are many exceptions, but my long-term perception of educators is that they know how to talk about it, but rarely can they really do it.

        You surface a general problem with education programs in general; there is no attempt to connect with the real world. Ivory tower indeed.

  8. I was reading a report from the eLearning Guild on eLearning Degrees and Credentials that discusses the pros and cons of seeking credentials such as a Masters or Certificate in ID. This is a question I’ve been struggling with for awhile having been creating and designing instructions and training for 25 years but only having a BA in Communications. Being in the latter part of my career, I have a hard time believing I’ll get my money’s worth but also wish I knew more about what’s new as technology and best practices continue to change so fast it’s hard to keep up and thus, hard to speak sometimes with authority other than a “gut feel”. I would love to find a good program that would update my knowledge to what Cathy is talking about and not so much the theory and design piece.

  9. Maery, thanks for pointing out the eLearning Guild report, which is available to paid members here:

    I’d be interested in hearing people’s recommendations for continuing-education programs that give IDs not just a foundation in learning theory but also the tools and confidence to take on a more performance-consulting sort of role. I’m asking this partly out of selfishness, because I’m designing a two-day elearning design certificate session for the Training conference in February and would like ideas on how to address the performance-consulting side of things. Does anyone have any recommendations for a class, workshop, or other program that helps IDs develop these skills?

  10. The ‘Upcoming interview with Allen Partridge’ is booked out.

    Will the event be recorded so I can listen to it after it has finshed?

    1. I’m checking on why attendance is limited and whether the event will be recorded. I’ll post the definitive answer here once I find out.

    2. I haven’t heard back from the session organizers, but their blog about the event says that if you register and don’t attend, you’ll be sent a link to a recording of the event.

    3. It looks like they’ve lifted the limit on attendees, so if you couldn’t register before you might try again. I’m told 568 people have registered so far.

  11. This is a much need post. Yes IDs are treated as doormats most of the time. Right now the client am working with wants me convert the PPts without asking much questions. Am finding it very difficult to cope up. Your blogs have always helped me. Thanks

  12. I commented on Patti Shank’s blogpost on this very topic (, but i’ll try to be more brief here:

    1. Often times, the reasons that a ‘learning solution’ is proposed and contracted have nothing to do with learning or performance improvement. They tend to have a lot to do with particular business objectives, hierarchy, face-saving, and positioning.

    2. While stakeholders may dismiss our value at times because they do not believe that what we do is so difficult or what we offer can be transformative in any way, i think that often times stakeholders know the real reasons that a learning solution project was created and funded, and know that we do not (and likely cannot).

    1. I agree that often we’re handed projects that must be “training” for reasons that are beyond our control. In that case, I think we can still raise our profile and show our professionalism by analyzing the problem in our “special” way, such as by identifying the factors of the problem that really can be addressed by training and focusing on those. We can deliver the learning solution in the format required by the political situation while at the same time showing how our performance analysis makes the solution more effective.

  13. Cathy, thanks for the post. It was rather insightful and thought provoking. The comments that have followed even more-so.

    Regrding the door-mat issue: I definitely agree that many clients treat ID’s and other training resources (internal or external) as production arms that should deliver the course asked for on time and under budget without making waves. My experience in custom development was that in nearly every case a client came to us with an idea for a course, a timeline, and a budget and they were very rarely prepared to even discuss, let alone seriously consider a more consulting oriented engagement. Timelines were tight, budgets even tighter. If I didn’t get moving on a project as soon as it landed on my desk I was risking both the timeline and budget from day one. Pushing back a little and acting more like a consultant requires support from one’s superiors, project managers, etc. If those folks aren’t there every day, explicitly supporting this kind of behaviour form their ID’s it is MUCH harder for the ID to make the kind of impact we are talking about here.

    Regadring degrees and education: My formal education was in IT, science, and Multimedia developemnt. I had no formal instruction in ID or training. 12 years later I have worked my way up from a development position to become an experienced and respected ID in my local community. I think being a great ID is about the person and their ability to analyze a situation, organize information, conceive a simple solution, and present only the necessary information in a coherent and engaging fasion.

    1. GTS, thanks for your comment. As you point out, in custom elearning development firms the situation is especially challenging. I think this happens because most firms position themselves as course developers, so clients who just want a course go to them and reasonably expect a course, no questions asked. For this situation to change, the development firm would need to position itself more as a performance consultancy that in addition to helping you diagnose your problem can produce a course when that’s the best solution.

  14. I really love this piece–and the vibrant discussion as well!
    IMHO: some of that tendency for ID professionals to be treated as doormats must stem from a failure of corporate stakeholders seeing ID as a *profession* (rather than “merely” a trade). The degree to which ID work gets out-sourced and off-shored is a measure, I would argue, of the degree to which instructional designers are treated as a labor force. So part of the answer would seem to be: the need in a change in corporate culture and corporate attitude: a recognition of learning consultants at a level on par with other corporate consultant work.

  15. This conversation and the blog post that sparked it is very instructive and encouraging. I am not an ID, but I am aspiring to be one. Its easy I think another strategy that might make pushing back on the client or manager’s original request would be to make a really clear argument using figures and metrics to show how the alternative strategy being recommended by the ID ( if implemted properly) would save the company money and time from the beginning.

  16. Here’s my 2 bits.

    I think the missing piece in the discussion is consulting. Someone who is truly consultative may say to the client “I want to make sure that what you are asking for is going to solve the problem and not cost you a whack of money that you don’t need to spend”. I don’t know how much of this is taught in degree programs. I don’t have a degree in ID. But consulting is more than doing a needs/performance analysis. It’s listening, influence, relationship-building/trust, etc. Peter Block kind of consulting.

    Internal consultants may not have the organizational chops (or the right role definition or an un-supportive boss, or organizational culture, or…) and external consultants, particularly if they are course developers may just talk the client out of the project and their income. So, while it might be the right thing to do, it is hard for folks to do that because of the consequences of those actions.

    And, the client has to have confidence to buy “services”, not a product. Many times, they want training because it represents a solution that is somewhat tangible. The messier option of “not sure what you’ll get” makes people uncomfortable. What if we have not done a good job as a profession to articulate the skills required to be an ID? We need to be able to sell/influence. If we can’t do that, then it doesn’t matter about the rest.

    OK, maybe more than 2 bits there, and I guess implicit in my answer is that yes we can be doormats sometimes. But, it’s a behaviour and we can change behaviour, right?