Abandoning Dead End Ideas

A few members of our team (myself included) are preparing to present at the Symposium on Universal Design for Instruction and Learning. We’ve also got course starts, a project list as long as my arm, and new assessment tools we’re implementing in our LMS. And with the holidays fast approaching, needless to say, it’s just a teeny bit busy around here.

Then I discovered I had to write a blog post.

So, I dutifully started scouting out topics, doing research and drafting words.

I stuck it on a shelf for three weeks to give it some time to breathe and then—accidentally deleted it when I was cleaning out some files and not paying attention.

So, I started to try and recreate it. But then I stopped myself.

Long story short, I don’t even remember what that post was about. And truthfully, it wasn’t that good to begin with. As I wrote it, the nagging editor in the back of my mind kept saying, “You know, this is kind of crap. Don’t write like crap.”

So, I threw it out. And here we are, back up against a deadline, starting over.

Now, I know that I’ve written about how to meet a looming deadline. I’ve also shared places to find inspiration in a slump. Today, we’re going to talk about when it’s time to call it quits. Throw in the towel. Cry Uncle. Give up on the old college try. Even if you’ve put a ton of effort into something, sometimes the best call is to throw it in the trash and light it on fire. Particularly if you’ve got a ton of balls in the air—which let’s be honest, is true most of the time in eLearning.

In short, don’t waste time on bad ideas.

Ideas and the Creative Process

In his seminal text on creativity, A Whack on the Side of the Head, Roger von Oech identifies four major stages, or roles, in the creative process:

Explorer: At this stage you gather new information, explore concepts, research facts, and otherwise get a general sense of your topic, or the problem you’re trying to solve.

Artist: In the artist stage, you make progress by taking the information you gathered while exploring and form it into new and interesting ideas. You combine things in interesting ways. Form new concepts. Make new connections—basically, you’re brainstorming.

Judge: So, now you’ve got a bunch of ideas. It’s time to sift through them and determine which ones are good and bad. Is this idea feasible? Do you have the resources to implement it? Spend some time identifying what challenges may come up during the process. This is when you really put the idea through the wringer.

Warrior: This is the “get it done” stage. You’ve got your information, molded it into a new and fresh idea, vetted it, and now you’re ready to execute. You’ve gotta stick through the process even when it’s sometimes challenging and you hit roadblocks. As Steve Jobs once said, “Real artists ship.”

As an interesting side note, if you look at the four roles above, you’ll probably self-align with one or two that you’re pretty good at. You’ll probably also find at least one that you’re not great at doing. That’s ok. It’s one of the reasons why it’s important to have a team involved during a creative process. Some members of your team are great explorers or artists, while others may be better judges and warriors. Lean into those strengths and roles, and let the members of your team do what they do best. It’s part of having a great eLearning ecosystem.

Why the Creative Process is Important

What does any of this have to do with throwing out bad ideas?

Obviously, you want to do the right thing at the right stage of the creative process. Engaging your ‘judge’ too early, while you’re back at the ‘Artist’ stage, means you might discard ideas or avenues of thought too early. These ideas might prove fruitful, even if they don’t pan out in their original form. And you don’t want to go full ‘Warrior’ while you’re still gathering information—you’ll end up with a bunch of wasted effort.

That said, the process won’t always go smoothly. You’ll find yourself (or your team) fluctuating roles due to project demands, resource constraints, or unanticipated problems. And it’s that last one that can really stall the process.

Sometimes, ideas just don’t work, and you don’t figure it out until it’s too late. You’re already hip-deep in task lists and time-tracking, only to discover you’ve found a significant flaw in the project or the addition of a last-minute deliverable that you have no control over.

Maybe your training now needs to cover an entirely new spectrum of material that wasn’t in the original scope. Or, maybe you’re asked to change or even expand the course into a different modality. Or you discover what you planned just doesn’t work as you thought. What do you do?

Well, you’ve got a few options, all of which require some flexibility:

  • Explain you can’t make the alterations, keep on your current track, and soldier on, making it the best you can
  • Take some extra time to band-aid fix your work or try to adapt, shoehorning it into whatever new requirements you’ve been given
  • Start over

That last option can be incredibly daunting, but it might be the right option. Sometimes, you realize that what you have just isn’t going to suffice based on the obstacles you now face, and starting over really is the best option.

Will it cost time and money? Yes. Will it ruffle some feathers? You bet.

But it’s better than a non-functional ‘solution’ that doesn’t solve the problem. Because if you pursue a broken idea, not only will you have to re-develop it again in the future (spending that extra time and money), you’ll also waste the resources of anyone who has to go through that course or training.

Flexing the Creative Process

So, take the time to think through your projects before you work on them. Know which processes to engage each step of the way, but don’t be afraid to be flexible. Sometimes dumping what you’ve got is better than wasting time trying to make subpar work into something it’s not.

At the end of the day, that’s a call you’ll have to make on a project-by-project basis. But hopefully this helps you think about the process. What are your best tips for dealing with last minute changes or problems that crop up during the implementation phase? I’d love to hear from you on Twitter or in the comments below.

Author: Dave Zokvic, Assistant Instructional Designer

Dave helps Model eLearning forge narrative and gamified eLearning and side-hustles as a writer and designer for Northward Compass. Off the clock, he’s likely eating sushi, wandering around a bookstore, playing tabletop games, or picking up his next ‘digital native’ skill.

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