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The First Thanksgiving: The Start of a Savvy Team

 by , chief instructional strategist | @ethanaedwards

Ethan EdwardsThis time of year we revisit the story of the First Thanksgiving, at least the version that has evolved over the years: the few surviving Pilgrim settlers joining in a three-day celebration of thanks with the local Native Americans who provided the help necessary to weather that first cruel winter and bring in a plentiful harvest the next fall. 

Perhaps it is because I was recently teaching an ATD e-Learning Instructional Design Certificate, discussing the Successive Approximation Model (SAM) for designing e-learning modules, when I was struck by an odd parallel.  A critical step in any SAM project is what we call the “Savvy Start” meeting—the initial design meeting that establishes the foundation for a successful project.  One of the most frequently-asked questions is “Who should attend the Savvy Start?”  There is no perfect answer, as every team and every project has its own special requirements, but I can’t help but think that the primary players in the Pilgrim Thanksgiving drama would form an ideal Savvy Start team.

Just as we suggest for a good Savvy Start, the Pilgrims and Native Americans set aside three days to meet together without distractions.  They claimed to have been leaving the Old World for religious freedom, but could this have really been an early case of Leaving ADDIE for SAM? You be the judge.

Consider the players:


Pilgrim Role

Savvy Start Role

Captain Myles Standish Captain Myles Standish

Military officer; played a leading role in administration and defense of the Plymouth Colony from its inception. Project manager responsible for administering the project, communicating between the parties, securing deadlines, and general oversight of progress.

William BrewsterWilliam Brewster

Senior elder of Plymouth Colony, advisor and teacher to the community. Instructional designer, adept at understanding an audience and designing instructional interactions to achieve specific performance outcomes.

Priscilla MullensPriscilla Mullens

Creative and resilient homemaker and craftswoman; accomplished in gardening, cooking, needlework, and other crafts requiring an eye for quality and aesthetics. Media, graphic, or writing specialist, adept at applying creative thinking and rigorous application to otherwise tedious problems.

John AldenJohn Alden

Ship’s cooper and community member, active in building and defense projects, carrying out plans for the colony.  Romantically involved with Miss Mullens. Developer with technical skills required to build prototypes and implement full interactive solutions when required.  Must have a great appreciation for importance of media.


King of the Wampanoags, responsible for the treaty of friendship and mutual defense.  Leader of the indigenous peoples. Project owner who usually has the most stake in the outcome—responsible for the contracting process and setting of success measures, usually has administrative responsibility for the ultimate learners.


Member of the Patuxet tribe; guide and translator to the Pilgrims.  Instrumental in teaching native methods of cultivation essential for survival. Subject Matter Expert (SME) who knows the content and also owns the critical performance objectives, providing critical information to the design team regarding relevant and necessary content and skills.

Governor William Bradford
Governor William Bradford

Governor and administrative leader of the Plymouth Colony. Executive who might have ultimate decision-making responsibility for budgets, staffing, and priorities. 

Pilgrims Native Americans

Pilgrims and Native Americans, present and ready to help. End users available for testing of prototypes and designs.

The parallels are hard to ignore.  Was this just coincidence or did the First Thanksgiving really represent the first Savvy Design Team?  We’ll never know for sure, but if you are planning a SAM project, review the right-hand column of critical roles.  Even if you don’t have a separate person in each role, you must be ready to account for that design function through multiple hats on one individual.

What does your Savvy team look like?

Disclaimer:  I would be remiss if I failed to note that there is much about the “myth” of the first Thanksgiving that is inconsistent with what must have happened.  These stock characters offer a familiar, but not particularly accurate, picture of how Massachusetts was settled.  There are many good references that attempt to bring clarity to the muddled version of history.  One I heartily recommend is Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen.

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About Author

Ethan Edwards
Ethan Edwards

Ethan Edwards draws from more than 30 years of industry experience as an elearning instructional designer and developer. He is responsible for the delivery of the internal and external training and communications that reflect Allen Interactions’ unique perspective on creating Meaningful, Memorable, and Motivational learning solutions backed by the best instructional design and latest technologies.

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