Struggles with Iterative Development in Instructional Design

Pat Finnegan Instructional Design Leave a Comment

Here are a few instructional design questions that came up recently regarding iterative development:

Can you share any specific agile development practices you’ve undertaken in your organization? If so, what have been the challenges with implementation? What have been the benefits?

I asked my team about these questions and here’s what we thought.

SAM vs ADDIE vs Rapid Prototyping

Anyone involved in instructional design these days has heard of the book “Leaving ADDIE for SAM.” Well, if I were to write a book on the subject, it would be entitled “When SAM Met ADDIE.” Like most ID teams we start each project by selecting which model works best for that specific situation. Most often though we end up choosing a mix of ADDIE, SAM and Rapid Prototyping. Personally, I can’t imagine a project where holding dogmatically to one or the other would have helped the iterative development process.

One Exception – The Savvy Start

One thing we always do – never omit – is the savvy start and the trick to a successful savvy start is a great facilitator. If you don’t have anyone with this experience, it will just take a few projects to get them comfortable with the process. My favorite facilitator doesn’t usually go for “fun” meetings, just respectful, thoughtful and productive. To help our facilitator learn the ropes we interview the client / stakeholder and debrief afterward without the client present.


Using lingo always alienates someone. That someone is often someone just being introduced to the iterative development process and, as they say, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” The initial meetings are run like a SAM “Savvy Start” but we rarely call it that. We just use whatever term the primary stakeholder uses in our initial meetings. We do use the term “iterative” but leave out most of the other ID lingo that is not ubiquitous or at least common in business.


Usually, ID for an academic project runs smoothly. But it’s different when we are developing to solve a problem like customer / subscriber churn, employee performance, or customer service. In these cases there seems to be more competition and blame among the members of the savvy start team, especially the SMEs. (If any of my clients read this – sorry – but you know it’s true!) It’s tough to move to the next phase when no one wants to admit where the problem lies. How can you move to design when we can’t even agree who it is that needs the training? Fortunately, we are usually brought in after these questions have been answered.


We come in as an ID service provider but sometimes we don’t know enough about the actual business process to discern the truth of the matter. If there are 2-4 SMEs in the meeting that can’t agree on the source of the problem it’s tricky to come up with a solution we can design and develop. No matter what, I suggest you do not leave the analysis phase half-baked. Bump it up to c-level if you don’t have one on the team already.


The other struggle is the fact that the iterative development is by nature just that – iterative. Getting cooperation in regular meetings can be a real pain. The solution to this problem, when we’ve encountered it, is usually for some c-level exec to mandate the meetings but this also can introduce a level of resentment to the mix. The facilitator is again the hero here. If they can make it interesting and productive, the resentment will fade. It also seems that once someone has served on a savvy start team that produced a “win” there’s less resistance to being drafted again for the task. Everyone wants to be part of a winning team, right?


I know you didn’t ask, but here’s a tip we learned from the video production world they asked me to share. If you want your team to love their assignment – DON’T SKIMP ON THE SNACKS! Layout a great selection of high-quality snacks and drinks and set the snack table up so that people can walk over to it while listening – or even while talking. We even scope out people’s favorite snacks ahead of time and make sure their preferences and dietary needs are represented.


As far as benefits are concerned, iterative development always seems to deliver a better end product in less time than linear processes. That is, at least once you get a couple of projects under your belt. We also feel that iterative design helps improve the skills of the Instructional Design team faster, primarily due to the level of review / debriefing / introspection it fosters.

If you would like to talk to us about your specific use of iterative instructional design processes give us a call at 719-999-5399 or use the Contact Us form to send us an email.

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