A familiar African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child—it means the entire community must interact with children for them to grow up to be a healthy member of society. Similarly, it takes a village to create a healthy learning environment.
As a part of the eLearning ecosystem, it’s both natural and necessary for beginning instructional designers (ID) to try to “prove themselves” and attempt to be everything to all people. As a beginner, you feel others depend on you. And because much of the time the others around you are so busy (or you are alone), it feels like there’s nobody to help. But what may initially be natural and necessary will ultimately limit an ID’s effectiveness.
When I started as an instructional designer, my biggest mistake was allowing my time to be eaten up with skills outside my core competencies. I devoted an inordinate amount of my first years to things I was not good at—things I would never be good at. It resulted in me investing limited energy in developing my strengths.
I’m a visionary and skilled with looking ahead—yet I struggle with follow-up. I find it easy to formulate a message, but I’m not a skilled communicator. After I learned to focus on my strengths, I developed these skills and eventually became the director of our eLearning team.
Somewhere along the way, the eLearning community bought into the myth that an ID should be good at everything. We’ve placed a veiled expectation that IDs must upgrade their weaknesses into strengths through sheer effort. In the name of efficiency, the ID comes in early and goes home late. They are in constant motion.
We’re not giving instructional designers the opportunity to work smart. An ID’s real value lies within the context of their giftedness, not the number of hours they work. When a significant portion of their time becomes devoted to tasks they are less skilled with, it takes their time away from what they bring to an organization.
Do what only you can do
As an instructional designer, playing to your strengths might seem unrealistic where you sit today but there’s rumbles of a new digital divide in instructional design. Once you get past the seeming improbability of the axiom above, write down your strengths and work toward improving them.
What have you been hired to do specifically? Which of your assigned tasks are you particularly gifted at doing? Of these, what two or three are you the best at doing? Focus your energies there.
You might feel you cannot afford to focus your energies only on a part of your overall responsibilities. Maybe not yet. What I’m talking about is a mindset, a perspective, a way of thinking.
You still need to complete your responsibilities, but in those areas for which you are gifted you make them shine like no one else can. You do what only you can do to maximize your impact on the lives of the learners in your “village.”
A word for leadership
If you are a leader of a team of instructional designers and support staff, know your team. Learn about the gifts of each individual and play to those strengths. Take your responsibility to empower the creativity of the team seriously and encourage team collaboration.
You need to distinguish between authority and competency. As a leader, you have authority over areas in which you have little or no competency. When we exert our authority in an area where we lack competence, we can derail projects and demotivate those who have skills we lack.
You don’t need to feel like you need to become an expert in every component of your organization. When you try to exercise authority within an area that is outside your core competence, you will exert your influence in ways that will ultimately damage your team as well as the learners they focus on.
So, empower the members of your team to play to their strengths, and (to put it bluntly) keep your nose out of those things they understand more than you.
Are you an instructional designer who feels like you must do it all? Or are you a leader trying to strengthen your eLearning team? Let us know your thoughts!
Stanley, A. (2003). The next generation leader. Multnomah Publishers: Sisters, OR.