Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Or in my case, who teaches the teachers?

I’m lucky at my current employer, in that part of my job is to deliver a load of courses to help my colleagues make some sense of words like “agile” and “mindset” and to learn about leading brands such as “Scrum” and “XP”. And more importantly, to help them realise that it’s OK to use your brain and common sense at work when trying to apply this stuff to really tough projects (my employer is relatively expensive, so we don’t get simple projects).

I’ve always enjoyed seeing students get a hold of a difficult concept – their eyes light up and you can see wondrous machinery whirring away at internalising their new-found knowledge. And for me, the ultimate in euphoric trip is when they think it’s an idea good enough for them to spend time and energy spreading (the payback usually takes longer as I don’t always find out, but that’s OK too).

This course is new for me though. It’s my first attempt at a train-the-trainer type of course. It forced me to do some soul searching and navel gazing.

  • Why do I like being a trainer?
  • What do I look for in a trainer?
  • What am I wary of in a trainer?
  • Why does this stuff matter?
  • What do I want from a trainer-production-system?
  • Who will the existence of all these trainers help?

Why do I like being a trainer?

I think it is just about seeing ideas enter people and change them (hopefully for the better). Their eyes light up, it’s brilliant. I think I’m just grateful that I get to see this a fair bit.

What do I look for in a trainer?

Someone who’s authentic. They bring their whole self to their course and they speak from their experience. Someone who’s not afraid of trying things out.

What am I wary of in a trainer?

Someone who’s voice and ego is bigger than the message. It’s about them, and how they do stuff.

Why does this stuff matter?

Project life is hard enough as it is. I want people to try and help make things better.

What do I want from a trainer-production-system?

Probably for it to not be a “mass production system” – if I wanted people who could parrot out the precise messages I wanted to give, then to be honest, I’d have recorded myself on YouTube and spent the budget buying Segways and IPads…

real_genius
Not a new idea. Scene from 1985 film called Real Genius

Who will the existence of all these trainers help?

The obvious (and stock) answer would be “future students”. But I think it’s the project teams that the new trainers will be in that will benefit the most. Not because they magically get someone who “knows all the answers”. I think it’s simpler, they get a “better team member”. By that I mean someone who doesn’t want to be the centre of attention, but is more interested in helping everyone else in the room (team) improve. Someone who feels learning is important enough to be willing to invest time and effort on it.

 

(Meta) Course Structure

On this train-the-trainer course, there are three distinct themes that need to come through:

  • The course content. So they can make the course flow “naturally”
  • The underlying material and knowledge. So they can speak from a position of knowledge and experience, as well as honesty and authenticity.
  • The confidence and ability to present / teach. Or even, the “permission” to make the course their own, and find their voice.

We mustn’t underestimate the third bullet, as I don’t think it’s usually something that we have in our minds as (potential) trainers. Especially when it’s someone else’s course. Terms like “Standards”, “Intellectual Property”, “Consistency” etc. all usually surface when broaching the subject of course content alteration for the first time. It’s not that those terms aren’t important – they’re very! It’s just that sometimes the underlying motivation for a course owner may not be the same as a trainer – especially the sort I’m looking to grow.

As a course designer and course owner, I feel successful when the courses that have been delivered/franchised/etc. are run well. The material was easy to understand, and people get what they were expecting. Course feedback is glowing. But that can’t be the only measure of success – a “successful” course that changes nothing in the lives of the students is a failed course IMHO.

So the future trainers of my courses need to be able to change how the courses function in order to give their students the best possible chance of getting something useful out of it. For that to happen, the trainers need to understand the course design and flow. Great courses have a logical flow to them, and there are a lot of hooks to connect concepts together, or to build on ideas. A course that is teeming with knowledge but is presented as a large list of independent facts will be dry, boring, and mostly pointless as the students won’t really learn much (other than how good/bad their cramming skill is).

With these hooks come many opportunities to connect ideas. For that to sound natural and based on what is actually happening in the room, trainers need to have put in the hours – they just need to have lots and lots of facts to draw from, from a huge range of scenarios and contexts. They’ll need to read around the subject. Anything less, then the trainer will spend effort trying to steer the room to a point where one of their pre-canned examples becomes relevant.

But to make sense of all of this potential flexibility, trainers need one more thing. They need to feel empowered to adapt the course to meet the needs that they see there and then, as opposed to what we saw while designing the course in the first place. Usual rules apply here, they need some skin in this game, that it’s their course too and they need to look after it. What they bring to the party, is their voice. How they tell the story, how they weave the narrative through all of those hooks and potential connections that the course material gives them. Course material should never be a paint by numbers. It’s a canvass and a palette for the trainers to produce the right result for their audience.

That is scary for a new trainer. Positively terrifying. What we had to do, was help them get this fear under control.

Some things we did:

  • Used a variation of “mob programming” so the whole class presented a difficult section on “mindset”
    • They were unfamiliar with the topic and unfamiliar with the training material, so the mobbing approach would help reduce the fear of the unknown (they’re not alone). One minute timer, so the speaker would change about once a minute, give or take (they all got a chance to be part of it).
    • That seemed to work well. They were able to come up with lots of interesting observations. There was a mix of “verifying the points were being made, and supplementing as needed” as well as “learning from the speaker and internalising the new ideas”
    • The proof was in the ability to recall the themes and present the topic confidently the day afterwards. To help this, we had some diffuse time – we let them sleep on it.
  • Repeated practice runs on “industry standard content” on Scrum and XP
    • They knew the subject matter reasonably well, but they didn’t know the training material or the defined flow
    • By splitting them into smaller teams, we took them one step closer to their “training reality” – they’d eventually be teaching in pairs
    • Smaller teams meant more sessions of the same content, so they could learn by observing others try to deliver the material
    • We kept things as fair as possible – the first team to try a section were at a disadvantage as the training material was unfamiliar. By the third team, the content was less scary. So we swapped the running order every time a new topic was ready to be practiced.
  • Multiple opportunities to handle “difficult questions from difficult people”
    • One of the larger areas of concern for new trainers – what do I do when faced with difficult people?
    • Ground rules – “ask difficult questions, but don’t be difficult”
    • DBAD – Don’t be a <swear word>

 

After three days they were cooked. But we’d covered enough of the scary stuff to think that they could give it a pretty decent go. Not everyone in the class would likely keep training on a regular basis, but they were all keen to try it out, as even if they weren’t selected as trainers, they’d still be better off and so would their project teams. Even the losing side has a positive outcome.

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