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  • Writer's pictureNicole Papaioannou Lugara

Why You Need to Take a Consultative Approach to L&D and Common Pitfalls to Avoid

I call myself an instructional design consultant, not a designer. This is because I lean heavily on consultation to guide my work with clients. My job is to listen and uncover my client's needs, to see what they don't see in their learning context, and to deliver guidance that leads to effective solutions. Content is just a product of that process, when appropriate.

I spend a significant amount of time reviewing documentation and data, interviewing, and observing. I let that guide my recommendations.

This was NOT my approach when I started as an instructional designer. As I became more experienced, both in instructional design and in the corporate sphere, I learned that asking the right questions is way more important than having all the answers.

The Why

Taking a consultative approach to learning and development-- including everything from team building to content creation-- has changed my process, my clientele, and my ability to make learning that matters to my clients and their end users.

Now, rather than going in ready to "mindmeld" with SMEs and create content that's "instructionally sound," I lead with a spirit of "how can we serve you?" And in return, I get people who are more willing to collaborate.

The consultative approach creates more buy in. When people feel they've lent their perspective, they're apt to become more invested. We know this from management theory. We know this from adult learning theory. It makes good sense.

But beyond that, a good consultative relationship is built on a foundation of trust and respect. These two things enable you to get to the heart of performance issues and examine learning contexts in ways that others cannot. This is especially true for outsiders, like me, but it does hold true internal personnel, as well. If you're the person who listens, supports, and solves problems, you'll get the truth, and the truth is what powers real solutions.

What to Do

Now, I could spend all day talking about best practices for consulting in learning and development, but here are the top takeaways:

  • Have a process that goes from inquiry to end of project. What happens when someone emails you with a training request? You should have a workflow ready to go and be able to communicate it to your client or colleague.

  • Set expectations, and keep your commitments. This is how you establish trust. You let your clients know what's coming and how to best work with you, so that everyone can succeed. Then, you deliver what and when you said you would.

  • Ask lots of genuine questions. Focus on understanding their need and get as much information about the learning context as possible. As Elaine Biech says, "If you are doing more than 50 percent of the talking, you have probably already lost the sale." Whether it's a product sale or getting internal buy in, the same rule applies. At the same time, don't just ask questions to ask questions.

  • Dig in. Embrace too much data. Use your expertise to narrow down on the important stuff.

  • Be honest. This one sounds easy but can be hard. If you find that training isn't the solution or that your project stakeholders are failing as managers, it can be tempted to hold back your assessment. After all, you don't want to hurt people's feelings. But you can only solve the problem if you're honest about the root causes. In these cases, frame your position with data and focus on behavior rather than personal qualities.

  • Embrace uncertainty. Consulting means you won't always have the answers up front. In fact, you'll be living in the world of "it depends" a lot, and that's ok. This liminal space allows for creative thinking. It also means you may have to say "I don't know the answer to that right now, but I'll get back to you, or I'll put you in touch with the person who can, which leads me to my next point...

  • Lean on your network. You can't possibly know everything about everything. Get to know other L&D professionals and service providers. Partner with them when it makes sense.

  • Frame up your findings and recommendations. Help your clients/colleagues make sense of what you've learned and why you're recommending the solutions that you have. You'll be more likely to get buy in this way.

  • Play to learn. Take time to continue developing your own awareness of what's happening in the field and in business, in general. This keeps you sharp so that you can continue providing the best solutions to your clients.

If you want more, consider joining the next cohort of From Data to Design, where I walk through my processes step by step and provide tools and templates to use on the job.

What Not To Do

Show Off

I said that when I first started I didn't take a consultative approach to learning and development, and it's true. In fact, I constantly felt the need to demonstrate my expertise in counterproductive ways. If I knew the answer, I might interrupt to show off that I did. If I thought something was "easy to understand," I brushed over it or rushed the SMEs past it. I didn't embody "I am not my learner" and my learning design was not always up to my current standards as a result.

Break Trust

Trust is the foundation of a positive consulting relationship, and if you break that trust, you prohibit yourself from being able to get the information you need to produce meaningful output. For consultants, there are three deadly trust-breaking sins:

  • Failing to listen and/or making it all about you

  • Sharing sensitive information without the source's permission

  • Not following through on promises

Lead the Witness

Avoid asking questions, whether they're during interviews or in surveys, that lead the "witness" to the answer you want. Keep open ended questions genuinely open ended.

For example, I've heard things like:

What might you want in a training?

A better question might be:

In what ways, if at all, do you feel you could be better supported in achieving [performance goal here]?

The first question assumes training is the right answer. It also assumes that the person, who doesn't necessarily have any knowledge of training, knows exactly what they need.

At some point, it might be ok to ask about the training, but not if you haven't done the other work first.

Shrink from Tough Questions

You'd be surprised just how much people are willing to share. If you think a question will yield meaningful data or you think access to certain data would provide an important perspective, ask it/ask for it.


For a list of questions you can use to start consulting, check out the FREE Discovery Call Question List.

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