Operationalizing Empathy in ISD/LXD

The popularity of Design Thinking in L&D circles has me reflecting on how I attempted to operationalize EMPATHY in my ISD practices.

The Current Obsession with Empathy

“Human-centered design pioneer Don Norman, who coined the term ‘user experience,’ explains why he’s not convinced by the current obsession with empathy and what we should do instead.

I approve of the spirit behind the introduction of empathy into design of Instruction – Job Aids & Training/Performance Support & Learning Experiences – yet I believe the concept is impossible to achieve. And often it is approached poorly.” Read that article here.


Just as there is no such thing as Zero Defects in a world full of variation, Real Empathy is something we’ll never achieve – but just as the Quality Movement strives for Zero Defects – we too should strive as best we can to have empathy, and better understand our stakeholders.

The reason we often talk about empathy in design is that we really need to understand the people that we’re working for. The idea is that, essentially, you’re in a person’s head and understand how they feel and what they think, and what they want and what they NEED.

I see a need to understand the NEEDS of three Stakeholders in an Enterprise Learning Context:

  • Learners/Performers
  • Management
  • Equity Owners

Empathy for the Learners/Performers

My first empathy is consistent across all 3 Stakeholders: Learners are Performers and they need to develop the Competence and Confidence to Perform Tasks to Produce Outputs to Stakeholder Requirements.

Learners need to Perform back on the job, and what they are given needs to help them do that effectively and efficiently.

When the Performance Context demands a Memorized Performance Response they need a Learning Experience that helps them learn and commit to memory how to Perform Tasks to Produce Outputs to Stakeholder Requirements. If the Task Performance is infrequent then Spaced Learning may be required to keep those memorized facts and actions evergreen/fresh and available upon demand.

When the Performance Context allows a Referenced Performance Response they need Performance Support that helps them Perform Tasks to Produce Outputs to Stakeholder Requirements with memorizing a thing – other than maybe how to access the Performance Support. Performance Support used often enough will eventually be memorized.

Asking Learners/Performers to memorize things unnecessarily isn’t empathetic. And suggests that the L&D Processes, Practices & People didn’t uncover that.

Empathy for the Managers

My first empathy is consistent across all 3 Stakeholders: Managers need to develop their people so that they have the Competence and Confidence to Perform Tasks to Produce Outputs to Stakeholder Requirements.

Empathy for the Equity Owners

My first empathy is consistent across all 3 Stakeholders: Equity Owners need the organizations they have invested in to develop the Competence and Confidence to Perform Tasks to Produce Outputs to Stakeholder Requirements for a decent return on their investments.

Operationalizing Empathy

I address Operationalizing Empathy in the following ways:

  • Project Steering Teams
  • Planned gate Review Meetings
  • Using Teams of Master Performers, Other Subject Matter Experts, Supervisors, and Novice Performers for conducting Analysis, Design, Development, and Pilot Testing

Project Steering Teams

The Project Steering Team is typically responsible for
• “Owning” the project
• Reviewing the Project Plan and directing the project
• Selecting all participants for later phases of the project
• Reviewing and providing feedback for all project documents and outputs
• Establishing development/acquisition priorities
• Approving or redirecting the Implementation Plan

The project manager uses the Project Steering Team to test ideas and obtain sanctioning for all project activities via the gate review meetings. The members of the Project Steering Team review, debate, and challenge the Project Plan. Team members also assist in making available the human resources data and other data needed to conduct the project. In addition, they select all of the other PACT team members.

Project Steering Team roles and responsibilities are similar in Curriculum Architecture Design, Modular Curriculum Development, and Instructional Activity Development. In each case, the team is composed of members who have a stake in the outcomes and process for conducting the PACT Process project. And in each case, the most important role on the Project Steering Team is that of the chairperson.

Planned Gate Review Meetings

The upside-down Traffic Lights – Go Lights vs Stop Lights – represent where I would typically conduct the Project Steering Team Gate Review Meetings.

After reviewing what was produced to that point, the Project Steering Team has 4 options, as I always tell them as we start the Gate Review Meeting. Those 4 Options at the end of the GRM that I had on the “almost last slide” – as I always used a “PowerPoint Deck” or a “Deck of Transparencies” before that – were to focus the discussion to reflect the Agenda and Goals – and that slide repeated the options I had presented at the meeting’s kick-off, which were:

  • Kill the Project – as it no longer made business sense*
  • Defer the Project – until some other activity on the Critical Path had completed
  • Modify the Plan – as we needed to adjust/adapt to some cause for us to do something other than what the original plan called for
  • Approve Continuation as Planned – and to help us/ensure that we had the resources (people and otherwise) that THEIR project required.

*Clients often reacted poorly when I led with this first option – but others cheered when they saw it. So sometimes a client might demand that I not lead with that – and reverse the order of the 4 options.

In that case – IMO – you always “salute the request” – and do as asked/demanded. As – he/she who pays the piper – calls the tune.

Command & Control & Empowerment

Yeah-Yeah-Yeah – many would object to the notion of Command & Control – but I would suggest to you that all too often the L&D Team is not trusted by Enterprise Leadership, the client, and stakeholders. Giving these stakeholders some semblance of Control for something that is important to them is often a secret ingredient for success.

I always saw these and used these Gate Review Meetings for “Command & Control & Empowerment” purposes – and would tell the PST that as well.

It gave them “Command & Control” – and it gave me “Empowerment” – especially when it came time for me to pry the most critical resources (mainly people and facilities) free for MY needs for THEIR project.

There are typically four GRMs in an Instructional Development (ID) effort.

Project Planning & Kick-Off Phase Gate Reviews

  • Review the Project Plan (and Proposal Costs)
  • Discuss the Stakeholders’ interests and biases
  • Identify the Analysis & Design Team members
  • Schedule the Analysis Team Meeting
  • Schedule the remaining PST Gate Review Meetings

Analysis Phase Gate Reviews 

  • Review the Analysis Data/Report
  • Discuss the Stakeholders’ interests and biases
  • Confirm identities of the Design Team members
  • Schedule the Design Team Meeting
  • Confirm the schedule of the remaining PST Gate Review Meetings

Design Phase Gate Reviews

  • Review the Design Document in detail
  • Discuss the Stakeholders’ interests and biases
  • Confirm the identity of the Team members for the next Phase(s)
  • Confirm the schedule for the remaining PST Gate Review Meeting

Pilot-Test Phase Gate Reviews

  • Review the Pilot Test Report and Revision Recommendations
  • Discuss the Stakeholders’ interests and biases
  • Determine the Updates for the final phase: Revision & Release

Using Teams

I ask the Project Steering Team members to handpick Master Performers, Other Subject Matter Experts, and sometimes Supervisors and Novice Performers for the Analysis Team, Design Team, Development Team, and Pilot Testing Team.

The Ideal Team Members include:

1- Master Performers – who can speak to the authentic requirements as they do the job to a level of mastery every day.

2- Other SMEs – who might have deep background knowledge about policies, procedures, or practices.

3- Novice Performers – who know what the current realities are for new hires.

4- Supervisors – who know what’s expected from the target audience by upper management.

Summary – Operationalizing Empathy in ISD/LXD

I’ve been doing ISD/LXD efforts this way as a consultant since 1982.

I’ve authored/co-authored articles and written posts and books and conducted Webinars addressing all of this.

Here is one Early Reviewers quote about my 1999 book, lean-ISD:

Miki Lane, senior partner at MVM The Communications Group says, “lean-ISD takes all of the theory, books, courses, and pseudo job aids that are currently on the market about Instructional Systems Design and blows them out of the water.

Previous ‘systems’ approach books showed a lot of big boxes and diagrams, which were supposed to help the reader become proficient in the design process. Here is a book that actually includes all of the information that fell through the cracks of other ISD training materials and shows you the way to actually get from one step to another. Guy adds all of the caveats and tips he has learned in more than 20 years of ISD practice and sprinkles them as job aids and stories throughout the book.

However, the most critical part of the book for me was that Guy included the project and people management elements of ISD in the book. Too often, ISD models and materials forget that we are working with real people in getting the work done. This book helps explain and illustrate best practices in ensuring success in ISD projects.”

Here is one reader’s unsolicited quote about my 2020 book, Conducting performance-based Instructional Analysis – In Every Phase of an Instructional Development Effort:

Although I have followed and enjoyed Guy Wallace’s work and approach to instructional design for some time, this was the first of his books that I have read. I recommend this book for all instructional designers. Especially those that are new to the industry or who are moving from department-level or compliance-related instructional design into larger, multi business unit or enterprise-level projects.

This book walks you step-by-step through Guy’s PACT Model and explicitly defines the information you need to collect at each step in the process. Often, when thinking about instructional design projects we think about analysis happening only at the beginning of a project. This is not what really happens. We collect information along the way and it shapes the decisions we make downstream from when we learn this information.   Jeromy Gallant

See all of my books on my Amazon Authors Page: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B08JQC4C4V


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