How to Ask for More Design Decision-Making Power? You Don't.
Many new IDs tell me: "There are times when I don't think the design approach my organization/client wants to take is the best one, but that's what I've been assigned. I don't have the power to make decisions right now. How can I ask for more power to make these choices?"
And to that, I say... you don't.
Let me explain.
Whether you're a novice instructional designer or a veteran, you have been hired to design learning solutions because your employer or client lacks that skill. You are an expert.
And experts, they don't need permission to do their job.
They just do it.
I'll say it again: you are an expert.
For me, this was honestly a hard lesson to learn. As a new ID, I sort of took my clients' perspective as gospel. For whatever reason, even though I had spent years studying teaching and learning and creating online learning, I felt like my job was just to create the content and think about the learning on a micro-level. No one was asking me about the bigger picture, and I allowed myself to believe that's because it was out of my control.
It wasn't. But as long as I believed it was, I couldn't fully serve my company or our clients.
On my first project as a new full-time ID, the client was spending over $1 million dollars on new hire pilot training that was regulated by the FAA. I didn't know much about planes or federal aviation regulation-- even though I knew quite a bit about adult learning and online learning. When something felt like a poor design choice, I just shook it off, or I asked for permission to make a design choice:
"Can I try this?" was often answered with "This is how pilots learn this stuff. We have to stick to what they know."
I let my lack of confidence silence me and simply followed the outline provided by the SMEs.
The outcome was training that was better than what they had, but not as amazing as it could have been. It was also a project management nightmare because the half-baked plan was constantly being revised as it was written.
I would NEVER let my client design that kind of training now, especially when given the option to start a project from scratch.
The next time our company had a project with the same client,
I explained to my superiors and then to their team that we wasted a lot of time and money last time by not doing a needs analysis.
Getting our ID team and their key players, including the SMEs, together would set us up for a more effective production process and end product. We needed to work together to determine an effective approach to the content ahead of time and to fully outline the course to the best of our abilities (obviously acknowledging slight tweaks my happen). They agreed, and decided to start with a kickoff meeting. They also gave me 2 weeks to do some interviews and data gathering.
The solution was much more effective, and our client reaped the benefits. From a project perspective, we were much closer to on-scope (which for a 160 module adaptive online course is pretty good). From a business perspective, our client saw improved customer service, standardized language for better communication, and reduced incident reports-- meaning less money spent on mistakes.
The difference was that I didn't ask "What do you think about doing this instead?" or whine "This isn't working. Can we try something else?" I gave them an easy solution with a clear benefit based on my expertise as a learning designer. I removed the effort required to come up with a solution or analyze my requests. It was simple for them to make a decision, so they did.
And it was better for both of us.
Of course, I got the uncommon opportunity to work with a client more than once.
But how do you make space for my perspective when dealing with new clients?
Do what IDs do best, start with a learning experience: use an assessment activity.
When my clients come to me and ask me to do XYZ training, I start with some open-ended questions, like:
What's happening now, and what change do you hope to see as a result of this training?
What's at risk if this training doesn't achieve its goals?
Who needs to take it?
When does it need to be delivered?
Who will be the SME, and what's their availability like?
(You can find more on my Discovery Call Question List)
Through these questions, I am able to get them thinking about what is they really want-- not just the aesthetics of the project -- and I am also able to gather important data that helps me identify important solutions to their problems.
That's not the only reason these questions need to be asked, though. As my client goes through the answers with me, it shifts their thinking. It demonstrates they haven't thought the whole problem through in the same depth that I, as an expert, will, and it puts them in a place where they start wondering, "Why is she asking all this?"
By the time we near the end of our discovery call, my typical closing is something along the lines of:
"I have some ideas. None of them are set in stone yet, but I'm excited about where this is headed. I'll send you a proposal with my recommended solutions."
Instead of them assigning me, I propose solutions to them.
But what if you don't work directly with clients?
You might think that I'm able to do this because I'm a freelancer, but that's not the case. I learned to do this as a member of an ID team, even before I became a manager, and I saw the difference it made.
And quite frankly, it's just as easy for a freelance client to assign you tasks as a manager, sometimes easier.
It's, in no small way, about making a mindset shift.
It's about embracing your own abilities and stepping into the role of consultant. It's about guiding your clients or team members to the best decisions. It's about learning to be an active listener and respond to real needs.
When you begin to do your homework, come prepared with solutions and data to support those solutions, thoughtful questions (not just requests for permissions), and stand confidently by best practices, people will notice. It may take some time, but they will.
And in the rare case they don't, then I suggest you get what you can out of the job and consider moving on as soon as that threshold has been met.
We have a knowledge economy.
If you're able to provide solutions, you'll have greater earning potential than someone who can only take orders and deliver content.
And you deserve that.