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Educating & Challenging Stakeholders on Instructional Design Best Practices

GeraldBy Gerald Matykowski, Inside Sales Manager

I have in-depth conversations with instructional designers (IDs) and ID managers on a daily basis—many invariably turn to frustrations related to “selling” instructional best practices to stakeholders and higher level decision makers.

Here are some common challenges I hear in my conversations:

  • Promoting new design/development approaches to jump-start a large project
  • Selling action-based interactivity up the leadership ladder
  • Convincing SMEs that learning ‘to do’ is more effective than teaching a folder full of content
  • Moving beyond a ‘check the box’ approach to compliance training
  • Getting approval to present a single prototype before an ADDIE design sign-off

What Language Do They Speak?

Let’s face it, we don’t often get the response we hope for when we propose or attempt to initiate ‘new’ techniques to create ‘serious’ e-learning. Promotion of higher level interactions, SAM vs. ADDIE, or doing vs. knowing can fall on deaf ears. Stakeholders approve the budgets and timelines of e-learning projects―they also often have established notions about what e-learning should look like which often conflict with an ID’s vision of best practices. Frustration builds each time we encounter ‘executive speak’ and/or a content-centric page-turning mentality. 

Challenger Strategies

If this has been your experience or you simply want to increase your influence with executives, there are new insights that you can leverage to improve your effectiveness. The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation, by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, Corporate Executive Board (CEB), offers valuable research and insights into strategies that educate and gain influence with prospective customers. If you are thinking, “Hey, I’m not a salesperson. This doesn’t apply!” Stop! IDs and ID Managers can also employ Challenger methods to gain better influence with stakeholders, SMEs, and executives on the methods and practices necessary to create lasting learning. 


There are far too many useful principles in The Challenger Sale to address in a single blog entry, but let’s take a look at a few of the basics. For the record, selling higher interactivity or changing a well-established ADDIE process to an executive is a complex sale. This ‘complex sale’ is what makes The Challenger Sale meaningful for IDs.

Here are a few terms and definitions covered in The Challenger Sale:

  1. High (Star) Performer – In The Challenger Sale, Dixon and Adamson define a Star Performer as an individual sales person who consistently exceeds expectations in a complex solutions sales environment (2011, p. 12). 
  2. Sales Rep Profiles – CEB Research identified five profiles. Two of the profiles have the greatest impact for this discussion:
    1. Relationship Builder – Normally considered to be a preferred profile because they build strong advocates in the customer organization and get along with everyone (p. 18).
    2. Challenger – The new finding in the CEB Research, this profile understands the customer’s business, loves to debate, and pushes the customer (p. 18).

Gaining Influence with Decision Makers

The Challenger Sale is based on solid research―something that we IDs value. The most interesting result of the research tears down some long-held beliefs about what influences buying decisions (in our world, decisions on ID models and tools). Two general observations that can be valuable for IDs trying to sell ideas to executives are:

  1. Don't be afraid to challenge your stakeholder's assumptions and educate them on alternatives. Only 7% of ‘Relationship Builders’ become Star Performers while 39% of Challengers become Star Performers. Challengers keep a ‘constructive tension’ in their interactions to educate and help the ‘prospect’ learn important facets that they have not considered about their world (p. 25-26).
  2. Don’t expect that executives will agree to a new tool or best practice on its own merits. It’s very likely that the person who is making buying decisions about proposed or new instructional design tools and processes sees very little difference between your favorite best practice and the status quo. CEB Research shows that only 19% of buyers stay loyal to a vendor because of the product and service delivery, however, 53% of those surveyed reported buying from a vendor because the sales person helped them navigate options and avoid potential land mines, which are two critical Challenger attributes (p. 47). In other words, how we influence is actually more important than what we are “selling.”

Challenger Profile Applied To Educating on Best Practices

Corporate Executive Board’s (CEB’s) Research identified six attributes that set Challengers and Star Performers apart (p. 23). Let’s look at each attribute and how it might apply to influencing decisions around funding increases or ID best practices. As an example, increasing the budget for a scenario-based anti-SPAM and Phishing learning program can be a significant challenge for IDs. 

  1. Offers unique perspectives
    Suffice it to say that plenty of IDs offer executives ideas for change because ‘it is the best way’ and ‘it has become the industry standard.’ Few ‘influencers’ open discussions by getting the executive curious about alternative ways to accomplish training goals. Decision makers are more eager to learn about what can help them solve their problems (reducing corporate exposure to spear phishing), not to simply make a change that, on first glance, appears to be a needless cost increase.
  2. Has strong two way communication skills
    An ID is especially adept at asking probing questions, listening to responses, and guiding toward a mutual goal. Relative to the IT security challenge, what discussion points and questions might you pose to a decision maker to help them to consider their perspectives on expected training outcomes?
  3. Knows the individual’s value drivers and 4. identifies economic drivers of the business
    Executives focus on the business of the business. The purpose of any given enterprise is to execute strategies that result in profit—things like finding and mining oil and gas, or manufacturing cars that sell, or creating new and healthy convenience foods. The president of a major financial services company recently told me that when it comes to training, his major concerns included ‘squeezing expense ratios down and eliminating needless discretionary spending.’ An executive might be charged with feeding and developing a leadership supply chain or compliance to IT security practices. You can’t influence an executive unless you are able to speak in terms of their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). You’ve got to connect their value drivers with your initiative before you can get their attention and consider alternatives.
  4. Is comfortable discussing financial implications of projects (specific ID best practices, models, and tools)
    This topic is broad and is far too complex to discuss in this post. I recommend that you visit our website and review case studies that show significant business impact and Return On Investment (ROI). The AutoNation case study is especially applicable because there are so many results that had a positive impact on financial performance for AutoNation. Do your homework, find a case study or two in your industry, and be ready with numbers to show how a small investment can reap big ROI rewards. Relative to IT security training, what is the cost of a security breach for a retail company? If 60% of employees across the enterprise are opening trial SPAM and phishing emails, what value would your decision making executive place on reducing that number to less than 10%? ID best practices, new interactive models, and more dynamic tools can have a significant impact on employee performance and productivity. Find out what senior organizational leaders consider to be their KPIs and be ready to help them learn how to overcome skepticism of a new approach with training/learning.
  5. Can pressure the customer
    This is a simple concept but difficult to employ. To put it simply, Challengers take their prospects and customers ‘out of their comfort zones.’  “Done well, a teaching pitch makes executives feel sort of sick about all the money they are wasting, or revenue they’re missing, or risk they are unknowingly exposed to” (p. 23). If you help an executive accept that another method might be required to address these concerns, you’ve got them listening and considering your alternative.

The Challenger Sale is a very thorough exploration of how Star Sales Performers gain influence. If you are challenged with influencing a learning industry executive to adopt new ID models or tools, or aspire to become a learning industry executive, I recommend that you read this book not from a sales point of view, but as a guide to gaining influence and successfully selling best practices in your enterprise.

I invite you to share your own frustrations and challenges in a comment below. We will explore this topic further in future blog posts.


Dixon, M., & Adamson, B. (2011). The challenger sale: taking control of the customer conversation. Portfolio Hardcover.


About Gerald:

Gerald Matykowski is the Inside Sales Manager at Allen Interactions. He holds an MA in Curriculum and Instructional Design, was co-founder of LearningByte International and founder of Anilor Learning Systems. Over the course of his career, Gerald has designed learning programs for Fortune 500 companies including sales and telesales programs for small and mid-sized firms.


AutoNation Case Study - Blended Learning

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