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You Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Gone

In: DesignShowing my Work

Hi. My name is Kristin. And I’m a recovering structure-aholic. But seriously, though. I had my first legit kickoff recently for my first instructional design assignment in my new job and… I was completely lost. It was completely unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and I hated it. When that sort of thing happens, I try to be careful to rethink my initial reaction. Particularly in a situation like this (new job, new assignments, unfamiliar surroundings) I figured it was a good time to review my assumptions on what a kickoff meeting is supposed to look like and force myself to articulate why I had so much trouble in this meeting.

Marley was Dead to Begin With

I want to recognize at the start that there are some things that went wrong that no one on my team had any control over. For example, the SME and project managers started building the course without any instructional design help and then came to us. So we’re having to prepare for delicately providing feedback and steering instructional design after a mindset and approach has already been established. The other thing that I have to own is that, given my previous work and my decided bias toward development work, I expect that an instructional design assignment will consist of me and the SME working together to hammer out content, decide on appropriate instructional strategies, and developing interactions. I expect to be able to help actually make things, not just offer suggestions on how things might be done. I think that this is just an assumption that I’ll have to let go of. That really stinks, though, because development is my first love. I like to make cool shit. Those aside, I want to examine my other assumptions.

The Instructional Designer Should Never Go in Blind

One assumption that was absolutely ripped to shreds during this meeting is that the ID should never go in blind. That is, the ID should be given as much information as possible about a project before the kickoff so that she can review it, figure out appropriate questions to ask, come up with some beginning ideas, figure out an approach, etc. I was completely blind in this meeting. To be fair, I did get a login to a wiki site a half day before the kickoff meeting but vital information was missing. I didn’t know that the course was going to be on edX, a platform on which I have no experience. I didn’t have any inkling of what the course content was going to consist of. I wasn’t able to review what the SME had created before hand. I didn’t know that my role was going to just be consultant and the SME was going to be creating the content. I was completely thrown for a loop. Last position, my supervisor fed me all of the information  she could about a project and we’d have a debrief (often just an informal conversation) a few days before so I could prepare appropriately, and bounce questions and ideas off her. I definitely miss that.

Assumption Check: Keep

I think that any information possible should be passed to the ID before the meeting so he can prepare to speak intelligently to the material. No ID has to be a content expert, but we should have the opportunity to familiarize ourselves with any pertinent information. Now, possibly, my team didn’t have the info either; but, if that’s the case, I would say that this is a definite failing.

The Kickoff Meeting Should be Targeted and Laser Focused

Another thing that was very disconcerting were the number of people in the kickoff meeting.  My assumption going in to a meeting called a kickoff is that project managers from both parties (that is, us and the SME) will come in at the beginning and offer an overarching vision for the course, perhaps reiterate some important other information (like when a course will be a part of a suite of courses), talk about roles and responsibilities at a high level, and then leave in 30 minutes or less. At that point, I have control of the meeting and the SME and I get down to brass tacks (more on that later). In this kickoff, I had directors from all over the place, several of whom I didn’t know would be involved. Everyone was interrupting with high level questions about possible research opportunities and tools and goals (which obviously flustered the project manager who was running the meeting). The meeting had absolutely no focus because the questions being asked were high level. New information was being introduced left and right. By the end of it (at least an hour, possibly a bit more), I felt no more informed than I had at the beginning. Furthermore, we didn’t focus on the course at hand because all of the questions and suggestions kept things high in the sky. I couldn’t ask questions because I got no real, actionable information. I couldn’t offer suggestions. I couldn’t discuss the important details.

Assumption Check: Keep

Mostly I think that this is another assumption that needs to stay. There’s a lot of things that should be ironed out before the kickoff meeting. Directors and other higher-level folks should meet outside of the instructional design space and ask their questions. Then they can pass along information to the ID as I described in my first assumption. This allows the kickoff meeting to be used more effectively on, ya know, instructional design. Now, there is certainly value in getting higher ups in at the beginning to make sure that everyone is on the same page. And, as I wrote, it’s good to know some extra information, such as the course being a part of a planned suite, because it helps you to plan what you will cover more appropriately. But we got onto things like whether they should do A/B testing, how to do that, and potential drawbacks; whether or not they had information on who passed the certification test; suggestions of courses to look at for inspiration; possible tools we might want to integrate… and the list goes on. Valuable information, for sure.But this was (to my mind) the wrong time and place for those things; it derailed everything. Those are questions that should have been before bringing me in. My job in the kickoff is to focus on design and development of the course at hand. I’m willing to concede that maybe this just isn’t how this org does business. I may need to just give up the first meeting to this stuff and realize that I won’t get my say until the next one.

The Kickoff Meeting is About Getting Started on Instructional Design

As I mentioned earlier, when I hear the work kickoff, to me, that means that the meeting will consist almost exclusively of me sitting down with the SME and working with him or her to make sure that we have a focused goal and that we hash out information about what folks need to be able to do, the focused information that they need to know in order to complete the “do” tasks, and think about interactions that help them to practice those tasks. Perhaps this is the overarching assumption that caused most of my problems. In my experience, my job in the kickoff is to collaborate with the SME on getting stuff done. The kickoff I sat through was more of a discussion of high-level ideas about the direction the course would or should go, possible research opportunities, and the like. This bent to the meeting coupled with my ignorance of content and my role rendered me completely ineffective. I hardly spoke two words. I couldn’t parse what was happening. And I don’t know if that’s going to get better with time. This is a major concern.

Assumption Check: ???

I formed this assumption based on two years of work. They were a great two years and some really great stuff came out of it. I think that the process I’ve learned works beautifully. The process (or lack of) in my current org lacks structure. While I’m perfectly fine with trying new ideas, I think that having a general, repeatable process that we can explain to everyone that we consult with would make a lot of sense and would solve a lot of the issues I came up against. However, again, I realize that this is a different org and this may be something that I just have to deal with.

Working the Problem

All said and done, I walked out of the meeting after a short debrief and was able to come up with several ideas to take into the next meeting. With a better idea of the role I was supposed to play, I was able to begin thinking about what I could offer this course in terms of content and design patterns. I was also able to integrate suggestions for several strategies on effective test preparation using several research papers I read only a couple of months ago. I have absolutely no idea of how this course will turn out being so removed from actual development, but at least now I have something to talk about. What about you guys? How do kickoff meetings work for you? What are your assumptions about what a kickoff meeting should be?


So after writing this post, I sat down in another debrief with the team and asked several important questions. And, as I suspected, it was my assumptions that caused the trouble. A kickoff meeting here is exactly what I experienced: all of that high level going back and forth. I still don’t know if I think an ID should be in such a meeting but it looks like I will be, so then I just have to brace myself for sitting and listening. I also learned that there isn’t really a structure that they’ve developed and used to help give clients a sense of the instructional design process. Knowing this will definitely help me be better prepared next project.