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Learning how to peel an orange has made me a better L&D professional


When I was growing up, my father would chop off the very top of an orange, then he’d score the peel vertically with a knife, cutting lines about an inch apart around the circumference of the orange. Then he’d use his thumb to remove the orange peel, section by section.

This is how I learned, and it’s the only way I knew how to peel an orange. When I found myself in the Peace Corps in Paraguay, a friend handed me an orange one day. I took out my handy Swiss Army knife, scored the peel, and spent several minutes determinedly trying to remove the peel. These oranges didn’t peel as easily as the oranges back home.

When I finished peeling the orange, my hands were sticky and the peel was all over, but I was ready to dig in. I looked up and saw my friend staring at me in amusement. She had finished her orange already.

“Why do you peel your orange like that?” she asked.  

It was the only way I knew how to peel an orange. In this context, however, it wasn’t a very efficient way to peel these particular kinds of oranges.

I didn’t stop to see how she peeled an orange. I didn’t ask questions. I assumed this was an everyday task that everyone pretty much did the same way. I found out this was (quite literally) a messy way to approach this task.

It would have behooved me to not assume that just because I did something similar someplace else, I could use the same strategy here.

I’ve had to carry this lesson with me into countless meetings with people who are interested in kicking off a training project, otherwise projects get very sticky. In the world of business these sorts of situations generally won’t end simply with curious or amused looks.

Here’s a list of ten of the most common questions I’ve found help me to check my own assumptions and learn more about the needs of a client:

  1. What’s the problem we’re looking to solve through training?
  2. Who says this is a problem? (Knowing what organizational or political dynamics are at play is essential.)
  3. What data (qualitative or quantitative) do we have that tells us it’s a problem?
  4. What will look different (again, referring to the data) if this training program is successful?
  5. How can we be sure this is a training problem (skills, knowledge gap) as opposed to a supervisory/support gap?
  6. What are people doing well right now?
  7. What’s missing from their performance?
  8. If training already exists – either on this topic or on related topics – what does it look like? What works and what’s falling short in these existing training offerings?
  9. What’s the setting in which people would apply this knowledge or skill set? (This is an important question in order to try to simulate real-world conditions as best as possible through whatever training experience you ultimately design.)
  10. Who needs to master the content/skills that will be trained and where are they located? (Asking this question recently helped my team switch our focus from what we had assumed was going to be an in-person training program to realizing we needed to develop an elearning program because the learners were scattered across the country and would never be in the same place at the same time.)

What’s missing from this list? What questions do you ask that ensure you hold your assumptions in check and truly understand the problem that you’re looking to solve through training?

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