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Onboarding: A Reflection

adult learning behavioral science business objectives corporate training instructional design Apr 24, 2017

In his seminal work describing flow, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi discusses the frustration we feel when a challenge is more difficult than our abilities, or how boring a task will be if our skills surpass the challenge. Flow, he says, comes at the balance between challenge and ability. The more skilled we are, the more we enjoy challenges.

At the beginning of a training program, skills are low. Even if we are accustomed to other learning programs, and even if this program should be beneath our skill level, the fact that it is unfamiliar territory means we will revert to the level of novice.

For instance, you probably had a similar amount of fear and tension your first day of school for grade three as you did for grade seven. By grade seven, you should have been used to going to school, but you were facing a new classroom, new teachers, new peers, and new subjects. So once again, you were a novice at school, essentially starting from the beginning.

Recently while skiing at Crested Butte, Jonathan shared his thoughts on the universal feelings we encounter in any onboarding experience. 

Generally, we don’t want to start people with too many challenges early in the process. Even if we believe they have the skills to overcome those challenges, participants are working from a fear-state. They are not prepared to take risks. Contrarily, if the program starts out too slowly, and it appears it will be easy for the next couple of levels, skilled participants are likely to check out.

When developing training, keep in mind the tagline, “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.” Participants don’t want to be overwhelmed at the beginning; they want some easy wins. But they also want to know that things will get more challenging.

It is also important during the onboarding phase to introduce the game mechanics that will be in play, especially if those mechanics run throughout the training. Participants must understand the rules as well as the importance of the different mechanics. For instance, if there is going to be a leaderboard, what must one do to be placed high on the leaderboard? And why should they care about being on the leaderboard in the first place?

But a word of warning here from Csíkszentmihályi, if the tasks seem overwhelming at the beginning, participants may check out before they start. If, for instance, they will need 100,000 points to just show on the leaderboard, and they don’t believe they can achieve that many points, they will not bother participating. If, though, during the onboarding process, participants experience the game mechanic Beginners Luck, and now they have 10,000 points before the program gets going, they will have a confidence that they will be successful.

The point is make participants comfortable during the on-boarding phase. Introduce them to the “higher meaning” of the learning program. Let them know what game elements and mechanics will be in play, and how they will navigate through these mechanics. Make sure they understand the rules and feel assured that success is possible. And then, only then, begin to launch your program.

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