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Lateral thinking: the forgotten art in learning and development

by Kate Middleton - August 30, 2016

Do the training and learning solutions you provide for your staff always make the impact you'd like? This blog is about improving the learning solutions you offer as a learning and development team.

Understand the problem before the solution

During World War 2 Alphonse Chapanis, an Industrial Designer, solved a problem the US army had with its Boeing B17s using nothing more than a couple of shapes. The planes were crashing on approach to the runway at an alarming rate and nobody could understand why. No technical faults could be found within the mechanics of the plane and weather conditions were not a factor, so what could be causing it?

Chapanis found that the levers for the flaps and the landing gear were very close together, and felt very similar to the touch. Pilots who were tired after a long flight or under strain were confusing the two handles, lifting the landing gear up at the last minute leaving the planes to crash on their bellies.

The next step was deciding on how to fix this problem. Options could have included extensive and rigorous pilot training, or a complete redesign of the plane’s cockpit. Both of which would be incredibly expensive in terms of money and time, while still not guaranteeing success. Chapanis solved the problem by proposing that a wheel be attached to the one lever, and a triangle to the other. This eliminated the problem of pilots accidentally landing with the wheels raised up.

This is a superb example of lateral thinking in which a solution was reached that was simple to implement while still having the impact necessary to save lives. Chapanis’ focus on human factors in this case had a profound effect on the aviation industry as a whole. No factor is considered too small when it comes to the question of safety, and CRM or Crew/Cockpit Resource Management is a necessity in limiting the risk of human error.

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Human factors = an opportunity for #learnops

So where can eLearning take this? Without the weight of lives in our hands it could be tempting to say “not very far.” However the difference that lateral thinking and consideration of human factors can have should not be underestimated. Chapanis was also a consultant on the development of the keypad for push-button telephones in the 1950s. It’s debateable whether the design of four rows consisting of three digits on each and a zero at the bottom has saved lives, but it is a remarkable achievement that this tried and tested formation has persisted into the age of smart phones.

We wrote recently about learnops, which is a combination of the words 'learning' and 'operations'. We are suggesting #Learnops as a new framework or movement to support L&D to work better to with different parts of the business. While we don't expect L&D to come up with the sort of solution that Chapanis came up with, if L&D worked to identify and develop relationships with the lateral thinkers, high performers, innovators, subject matter experts or operational experts in the business, how transformative would that be?

Learnops and innovative, modern instructional design

When instructional designers receive content from clients there is often an overabundance of information. This happened to me with a recent compliance course on Data Security, and when the overarching mandate was given to me:

“We need our staff to learn this.”

A somewhat petulant retort appeared in my own mind:

“Why should they?” 


The information was random and scattered with no obvious links or flow, it dealt with situations that were nearly impossible. When placing myself in the ‘cockpit’ of the learner’s position I was struggling to see the relevance of the material to my role. A thought that kept cropping up was that this would never happen, this couldn’t happen. And from that thought came a structure for the content – what if it could, all in one day? From this idea came a narrative involving a character for whom simple mishaps turned into grave disasters, all happening throughout the course of the day and stemming from activities that learners would likely be doing in their own work day e.g. driving through the gates and showing their passes, logging into their computers. Once this had been established the rest fell into place. The information I had could be made relevant without having to be manipulated to a great extent.

From here the content changed from a mass of facts into a storyline, and unrealistic situations became tangible. Under-working rather than over-working the content meant that the key messages were able to be conveyed without having to swim through the muddy waters of interpretation. We can take many lessons from Chapanis, but arguably the most important of all is to look at the content first from the learner’s perspective and from there recognise the simplest solution to implement. And of course, find an expert in the business to help you!

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How are your learning solutions?

If you'd like to share any of your training or eLearning design challenges below, we'd love to hear from you.

If you'd like to try a different approach to eLearning content design, why not get in touch. We'll spend time with you, ask you plenty of questions and make sure that we'll make an impact! 

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