Adopt Leader-First Instructional Design Principles

Ultimate Guide to Leadership Development

Are Instructional Design Principles in Vogue These Days?

Remember the pendulum of leadership development we mentioned in the beginning of this guide? This metaphor becomes relevant again when you consider instructional design.

In the past, instructional design favored the left side of that pendulum. Based on proven techniques, instructional design professionals would carefully craft learning experiences that followed specific principles and rules for learning. Often, this approach also relied on a highly knowledgeable instructor, or the “teacher knows best” approach.

While highly structured learning delivers a lot of clear benefits, it may feel inflexible. This “one size fits all” approach often doesn’t allow enough room for personalized or in-the-moment learning.

As a result, companies began swinging toward the other extreme. Abandoning design completely, they adopted a completely unstructured approach where everything is learning. Articles. Podcasts. Videos. Short courses. All of these count as learning!

the words, highly structured learning to the left, a picture of a pendulum swinging left to right in the middle, and then, everything is learning written to the right to show the current state of leadership development is a pendulum swinging between these two extremes of learning styles

And to some extent, that’s true. Everything we do on a daily basis contributes to learning. But the question is whether these self-driven experiences deliver real change. Learning only matters if it impacts leaders’ behavior.

Rather than focus on either extreme, a better approach is to apply foundational pillars that place the leader’s needs front and center.

Whether you’re building your own experiences or purchasing content from a vendor, it’s important to be confident in the foundations behind the development approach. These foundations should be applicable whether you’re designing a multi-day leadership program or a 2-minute video.

In this section, we’ll share the instructional design principles that DDI uses to guide our approach to leadership development.

a magnifying glass with gears filling the bottom and people icons up top, one person icon standing in front of the other two, written to the right: Relevant: Great instructional design puts leaders’ needs front and center, ensuring that what they learn is deeply relevant to their challenges.

Design Principle #1: Relevant

Too often, leaders are presented with frameworks and situations that aren’t immediately relevant to the challenges they face. Effective learning must address real situations and engage leaders on a practical level. 

Leaders need to feel connected to the purpose of an organization. They want to see how their development relates to values, strategic priorities, and broader business purposes.

Building relevance into content and experiences includes several simple but profound elements:

  • Bringing in the Organization Culture: Find ways to incorporate the leaders’ current situation by tying concepts to the company values or current initiatives. Ask leaders, “Does this work at our organization? If not, why?”
  • Leveraging Learner Scenarios: When introducing a topic, ask leaders to provide examples or scenarios that are relevant for them. Prepared examples can work, but give leaders the option to suggest others. Make it easy to tailor exercises and pull in the leaders’ workplace situations.
  • Asking About Learner Needs: Ask leaders what challenges they face most often. Where do they need the most help now?

a grid with four images that represent personalized learning, a light bulb, an outline of a head with gears, etc., written to the right of it: Personalized: Every minute leaders spend on learning needs to be meaningful to the individual. That’s why leaders are clamoring for deeper personalization in learning.

Design Principle #2: Personalized

Leaders have limited time to spend on their development. So it’s essential that every minute spent learning is meaningful. That’s why personalization is critical—and why leaders are clamoring for it.

Many learning and development practitioners struggle to define what personalized learning really means (and we’ll talk about this more later in this guide). Does it mean that every leader has their own digital learning path? Does personalization mean that content is based on individual assessment results? Does it mean recommending content based on what a leader engaged with previously? Or does it mean serving leaders content that maximizes their development?

Personalized learning can take all of those forms. At DDI, we believe that personalized leadership development is about meeting leaders in the moment, recognizing their unique needs in light of the challenges they are facing in their work. 

What personalized learning is NOT is a free-for-all, with every leader learning different models, philosophies, and behaviors. Nor is a personalized learning solution an artificial intelligence (AI) engine that recommends content (although these AI engines can be a huge help!).

Rather, personalized learning is a way of using data and insight to create targeted, personal experiences that resonate deeply with leaders based on their personality, experiences, preferences, and position in the organization. In short, personalization is at the heart of making development a way of work.

lightbulb surrounded by gears moving, to the right written: Immersive: Immersive learning is the creation of a complete environment where people can interact and perform tasks as they would in real life. Immersion is essential for people to practice and apply their skills.

Design Principle #3: Immersive

Quick pop quiz: Is immersive learning the same thing as virtual reality?

This is the number-one question we hear when we talk about immersive learning. Virtual reality is an incredibly powerful type of immersive learning. But there are other ways to provide an immersive learning experience.

Immersive learning is learning by doing. Learners become active participants in the learning process by directly engaging with situations and challenges they can relate to.

While the pedagogic value of an immersive learning program is strong, it also contributes to learning that is absorbing and satisfying. This is important in a world where leaders are constantly exposed to a full range of engaging experiences outside of formalized learning.

Emerging technologies like virtual reality can be important tools. As we’ve worked with leaders in VR experiences, we’ve found that they’re useful for creating incredibly effective, empathy-generating experiences. VR also offers a powerful opportunity for realistic practice of leadership skills in a safe space, free from self-consciousness. And leaders love it.

More traditional simulations (sometimes found in assessment centers) can also provide deeply immersive experiences. These “day in the life” opportunities allow leaders to demonstrate their skills in a realistic scenario, but without the consequences of real life.

At the same time, leaders also place a high value on the more traditional approach of real-time practice of leadership skills such as coaching or delegating with a peer. Learning with and from others satisfies the strong need we all have to connect.

When it comes to immersive experiences, it’s not just about using a specific technology or singular approach. What’s important is that leaders have the opportunity to take a step back and focus deeply on developing the skills that make them better leaders.

two halves of the outlines of the brain are shown, to the left the outline is filled with gears, and to the right, the outline has a heart in it, written to the right: Human: Every person brings their heads and hearts to their work, their role, and every interaction. Leaders need to recognize that their work is deeply human.

Design Principle #4: Human

This instructional design principle might seem the most obvious, and yet it’s often the most overlooked. In the general zeal to help leaders be better, it’s easy to forget that they are people who are dealing with people. Many of the challenges leaders must manage elicit an intellectual or emotional response—or both.

Leaders bring their heads and hearts to their work, to their role, and to every interaction. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses to manage. And they do the best they can to deal with the expected and unexpected challenges and opportunities that fill each day.

For this reason, leadership development must connect at a human level. At DDI, we accomplish this in several ways throughout our learning design:

  • Engaging the Heart. Evaluate learning content in terms of how and where it causes learners to feel emotion. This can be done through video, candid discussions, real examples, or other methods of engaging leaders in a safe learning environment.
  • Tapping into Frustrations. It’s common for leaders to encounter problems when trying to apply new skills. It’s important to surface challenges and talk about what made those skills difficult to apply.
  • Employing Storytelling. Facilitators should share examples from their own experiences to illustrate points and encourage learners to do the same. You can bring points to life with scenarios and powerful stories.

an icon of two people with a bridge of colorful bricks connecting them, and on the right it says: Trusted: In a world driven by search engines, leaders need to know that the development they are getting is credible and effective, not just the most popular.

Design Principle #5: Trusted

The last instructional design principle is one that is becoming increasingly important in a search-engine-driven world: trusted content.

When you have a question about something, what is your first reaction? Do you go straight to the web? It’s quick and convenient, right? In just seconds, you can click through articles, images, videos, and more that can likely answer your question.

But how do you know which content is credible? What do you know about the expertise of the person that created it? How do you know that the answer you receive is correct? Or that the approach recommended is the right fit for you?

You can’t compete with the internet or prevent leaders from searching for solutions. But it is important that leaders receive formal development that is based on a scientific, data-driven approach. They also need to know that the development you provide will help them build skills and become a better leader. It should be more than a few quick tips to help with the issue at hand.

Even better – what if they could search real-time within your organization for the solutions they need when they have a real-time problem? What if they could get solutions aligned with your organizational vision and their needs? This is what we strive for when we think about meeting leaders in the moment.

Applying Instructional Design Principles

Every element of learning in your program may not meet all five instructional design principles. And that’s OK. Some may meet two or three, while others meet all five.

The most important thing is that you’re clear on what your instructional design principles are and how each element of your program meets them. If parts of your program start to fall outside your instructional design principles, ask whether they are really supporting your overall strategy and goals.

DDI's instructional design principles are each in a box, and underneath a description of the design principle: Relevant: Connect with my challenges and the organization, Personalized: Highlight what the unique value is for me, Immersive: Let me experience the challenge, Human: Help me feel the emotional connection to the situation, and Trusted: I'm going to get value out of this.