“That Didn’t Suck”

By Scott Miller

“Hey, that didn’t suck!” says the executive vigorously shaking my hand at the end of a learning engagement.  I look him in the eyes, laugh and point out that this is not the first time someone has made that comment.  Reflecting on this reaction, made me want to share what I have learned about creating more powerful learning engagements.   After 25+ steady years of being endlessly and consistently present as a learning professional globally, from new-hire orientation programs to senior team development at some of the Fortune 100 companies, I have simply captured what I have learned from observing so many learning engagements.

Common sense may not be a common practice.  Think about it.  As humans, we look out at the world as we travel through it and learn from it. We are challenged and changed by the things we are exposed to and interact with.  The majority of those “things” that really impact us as humans involve experiences we feel a part of, not simply as passengers.  When you listen to the stories from leaders their deepest learning experiences come from them being a part of the hardest won struggles in which they had to work hard to succeed or learned from failure.

Why should executive learning engagement efforts be any different?  Developing really smart people is a craft, an art form that involves a combination and balance of the right content to meet the right context for the learner.  That learner then must be given the opportunity to get in the driver seat to really leverage the content and context they were just exposed to. How we as humans naturally learn in life, still applies to executive development and creating highly engaging learning environments.

Embracing engaging learning methods

Like the long-seeded practices of traditional higher education, executive education is stuck in some of the same mud.  The good news is we know what better learning environments look and feel like.  The research is there.  Elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and many private learning institutions around the world are embracing learning methodologies that are not new, but proven to work.  The bad news is you have to work hard to overcome the past to get there.  Overcoming old models and navigating traditions requires taking risks and pushing hard on the past.

Essentials for building great learning environments 

  1. Commit to the “true few” learning objectives. The famous saying, “I didn’t have the time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead,” often comes to mind when sitting down with design teams.  Prioritizing and honing the learning objectives up front is key to the end game of having delivered an impactful learning experience.


Start this process by asking stakeholders questions that involve them in the identification of the highest impact learning objectives for this specific population.  Then have stakeholders come together, prioritize and cut the list off at what you have time to deliver.  Don’t give into bolting on more.  Think about it, if you were to set off to learn to speak another language, you don’t go out and try to learn Spanish, German and Mandarin all at once.


Instead, really prioritize learning objectives and be willing to do less in the name of excellence.  When you get pushback from all those business unit leaders be bold and point them to the data; they love data for decision-making.  The learner needs to exit the learning engagement with a very memorable experience that reminds them of resources, strongly imprints a personal understanding of what they need to do differently, and leaves an indelible memory of what can happen if they do or don’t follow up.

  1. Orchestration to connect the learning. Connect intellectual horsepower and content to the real world for learners.  Every speaker—regardless of topic, expertise, or origin—must be relating the content to what this means for the specific audience.  This relates to the above point of commitment to the true few learning objectives.


Let’s just say it … we all have tried to work with speakers in advance of the delivery to really push for customization, typically it is very difficult.  Getting those amazing professors from prestigious universities to customize content to your industry or specific challenges is next to impossible.  They are just moving too fast and have a lot to cover.  Worse, I have even seen their smooth deliveries stumble as they get out of sync by trying to customize content. Organizations pay a lot to have their brilliant content and insights. For your delivery, you want that content to roll smoothly with all the good entertaining presentation points the professor has rehearsed and scripted.

Whatever the delivery method, investing in a highly skilled learning orchestrator who constantly puts connection points at the center of the learning experience is invaluable if you are to see the benefits of the intellectual horsepower you paid for.  The orchestrator is the “red thread” that connects the content over and over again.  Connect, connect, connect, and then it is not enough to leave it for the learner in the room to connect it on their own.  Instead, you need to put the learner in the spotlight to drive them to share their personal connection.  This will keep the learner from feeling like just “a butt in a chair” and imprint a personal understanding of what they need to do.

  1. Use next practice learning methods. So you have narrowed the objectives, you have excellent speakers that have created space for the audience to think and share ideas, and you have a highly skilled orchestrator that can seamlessly connect the brilliant insights from the speakers to learners to the key learning objectives, but yet still something is missing.

I learned this approach from Larry Rosenstock while taking a tour of his innovative and award winning High Tech High School in California. If you don’t know the name Larry Rosenstock, watch this video.


Take a moment and ask yourself what are the two most memorable classroom learning experiences from your high school years?  Write those down.  Write next to each one the key characteristics that defined that experience.  What made it so memorable?

Larry has done this with thousands of educators and communities in large groups. I have done it in design meetings with tough risk-adverse organizations.  The list generated is always the same.  People overwhelmingly remember learning experiences that have one or a combination of these six elements.

  • Involved a project
  • Involved community
  • It had fear of failure
  • It had recognition of success
  • Involved a mentor
  • Involved a public display of work

Humans learn, truly learn, when they themselves are at the center of a memorable learning experience.  The majority of the development designs and learning engagements out there don’t truly start with any of these six elements.  Designing in these elements is not hard and there are plenty of tried and tested experiences available. Each organization strategically needs to look closely at how these can be leveraged into the design to meet their learning objectives.

I am thinking of just cutting these samples all out and leave the reader to want to know more…

I narrowed down Larry’s six elements into three categories most commonly used in corporate development.  It is important to know, more than one of the above elements many be present in any of the next three practice methods.

Next Practice Learning Methods

  1. Immersive learning experiences allow participants to be immersed in something very different and much bigger than themselves. These engagements often create an emotional connection to heady, hard-to-comprehend messages. Immersive experiences such as visiting a place (institution, community or organization) which brings to life, the content you are trying to highlight. For example, if inspiring a culture of innovation is one of your learning objectives, you need your participants to really experience and see first-hand what that looks, feels, and smells like.  By immersing the participants in that setting, they can’t help but better understand it, see the gaps, and make mental notes on what they need to do to make innovation a reality in their own world. Crafting and discussing predetermined “lens questions” prior to your visit will keep learners focused on the key aspects and take-aways.
  1. Experiential methodologies provide powerful, quick-hit opportunities to catch yourself or your organization in the act of being yourself. These methodologies need to be challenging, population appropriate, problems solving activities which involve a clear goal, clearly outlined constraints, which engages the learner’s instinct to succeed.  Often these experiential tools are used as a practice field for specific subjects such as collaborating effectively, creating an environment of innovation, establishing trust, using persuasion/influence, etc. Experiential methodologies also are excellent at catching leadership styles and behaviors in action.  When there is fear of failure, and there is recognition of success with mentors and peers in the room the impact of learning is heightened.

With the use of mentors and/or executive coaches, in the moment, real-time peer feedback or behavioral observations provide executives with undeniable cause and effect to actions.  It is hard to teach smart people something new, but when it is them recognizing their own behavioral missteps in real-time action, they learn.

  1. Project-based learning/ action learning projects are all about delivering a result in which peers or superiors are evaluating what you deliver on (a public display of your work). Knowing your performance is being observed by peers or superiors drives performance and hence drives behavior. Project-based learning involves real tasks of novel challenge for participants to solve.

Action Learning projects that address a real company issue have been popular for years in development.  These are typically complex “heady, not sweaty” type projects in which an individual or a group of diverse learners work to present a solution.

Team-based projects allow participants to work deeply within team and leadership dynamics. Individual projects can be focused on an individual’s business unit challenges.  Either individual- or team-based and with careful selection, projects can drive participants to wrestle with specific issues that mirror solutions and thinking needed in their specific business or industry.

When multiple projects are launched at once, the interaction between these projects drive performance.  You can’t underestimate the power of teams or individuals self-evaluating how they did compared to others.

  1. Find the magic ratio. Programs must strike a fine balance between two key design components: classroom-driven intellectual horsepower and the use of “next practice learning methods” to create a memorable learning experience that brings the content to life.  All too often, the learner-centered approach is far off balance by front-loading three days of intellectual classroom content and pairing it with one hour of experience.  By repeatedly connecting the learning to the doing, you power up the learning experience, create a memory stamp, and access less saturated learning space for everyone in the room.  Part of the design and delivery craft is creating an ebb and flow to this ratio so that the brain is treated repeatably to a cycle of intellectual stimulation and then a next practice method.

In the end, the delivery must engage the learner intellectually and emotionally to change them behaviorally and make a lasting learning impact. Putting the learner at the center of the learning experience as an owner and operator in the driver seat is a must.  Really prioritize and then limit the objectives, get the impact of content by creating oxygen for the learner, connect the content to the learner specific context through skilled orchestration, and design in a next practice learning methodology to help drive sustainability in the learning.

I don’t mean it to sound like a “paint by numbers” exercise; there certainly is an art to the craft of development. We know how learning works in real life.  By incorporating those elements, I know you will get the satisfaction of someone that looks you in the eyes, shakes your hand, and says “that didn’t suck!” I’d love to hear from you when that happens.


Scott Miller is a senior partner and principal at Action Learning Associates (ALA), an international consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations achieve competitive advantage through learner-centered educational programs that link team, organizational, and leadership development to business strategy. www.actionlearning.com