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What happens when instructional designers are partners, not order takers?

When a long-time friend and I decided to leave the safety and comfort of our respective jobs to start our own instructional design company, Endurance Learning, we made a conscious decision that we were going to be different. We didn’t simply want to bring our clients’ initial ideas to life, we wanted to make sure our clients ended up with the best learning experience possible.

It was a nice theory. In reality, it proved to be a risky proposition. After all, pushing back on a client could mean that they take their training project (and their budget) to someone else who will do exactly as they say.

Recently, Michelin presented our Endurance Learning team with their Dealer Experience Partner Award. As he presented this award, Tim Cunningham, Michelin’s Director of Customer Training and Development, cited our ability to be a partner with his team and to push back as necessary as some of the reasons he found our instructional design contributions to his team so valuable.

Endurance Learning receiving Partner Award

Following are four takeaways from our experiences with Michelin that could be applied by instructional designers everywhere – whether you’re internal to the organization or coming to work on a project from outside the organization.  

Discuss the “Partnership” up Front

Every successful project begins with role clarity. The relationship between the client seeking a training initiative and the instructional design team is an important one to clarify from the beginning.

WhatMadeItGood WhatMadeItBad FlipchartWhen we were asked to work on an initial project, we were told that they were looking for someone who could help document the training content that was currently being delivered and who could package that content in a scalable manner through facilitator guides and other training materials.

We were happy to do that. And, we said we’d have a bunch of questions along the way to identify what might be the best way to design the end-product. We were clear from the beginning that we’d have a lot of questions, we’d have some suggestions and above all, we wanted the entire process to be a conversation.

Know When to Hold ’em, Know When to Fold ’em

From an instructional design point of view, Endurance Learning approaches projects with some very strong opinions about what works in a training program. At the same time, it was essential for us to be willing to listen and respect the experiences of the SMEs and the trainers who would be asked to facilitate the final product.

There were times when we came up with what we thought were brilliant ways for content to be presented only to be frustrated by our client’s resistance to our idea. As we listened to their objection(s), it dawned on us that we didn’t hold a monopoly on the best ways and ideas for information to be presented to their specific audience.

While we pushed back on many of their initial ways of doing things, it was also essential for us to listen when they pushed back on us. This push and pull have made us better at our jobs and a better partner.

New Approaches Require Evidence

We realized that some of the ideas and activities we proposed to engage the participants were so far outside the way they’d been presenting that they couldn’t quite see (or embrace) our vision.

Play Doh Activity“Wait, you’re suggesting we bring Play-Doh into an activity with a bunch of grown tire salespeople?!”

We pleaded with the SMEs and the trainers to trust our process, and once we completed a first, small project so that they could see our vision in action, they were more willing to trust our process for bigger changes. Change can lead to anxiety… offering real evidence that it can work successfully helped us to open the door to bigger changes down the road.

Recognize the Contributions of All Partners

Following up with the end-users of our training, we found that engagement in the sessions seemed to increase and sales began to rise for those who had completed these new training programs. We received some compliments for this, but the fact is that it was a partnership from the beginning. Finding ways to recognize the hard work, tough decisions, and incredible insights of everyone involved in this partnership was essential.

One higher profile way we were able to do this was by publishing this case study in TD magazine.

What other strategies have you found to be helpful in forging a partnership with your clients? Add to the discussion in the comment section.


We are quite proud of the award we received, but we know that Endurance Learning has more to offer. Do you need a partner to help push your next training project forward? Drop me a line and let’s talk!

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