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ATD Blog

3 Tips for Creating Realistic Scenarios

Wednesday, July 12, 2023
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With the last minutes remaining before a daylong workshop ended, one attendee offered feedback about the last activity. “That example you walked us through felt a little too relatable,” they laughed, a nod to a scenario featuring an overwhelmed instructional designer balancing deadlines and deliverables as partner requests piled up. “I will remember that example for the rest of my career!”

I’ll remember it for the rest of my career, too, I mused, as the rest of the attendees murmured their agreement. After all, it was based on a project I worked on several years earlier.

In that moment, I was glad for an ordeal I would otherwise have preferred to forget. Our best lessons often come from our worst moments—and sharing those lessons encourages team members to learn along with us. Some challenges become quick anecdotes to make a point or full stories to guide future decision making. For trainers, they may also be the secret to building and delivering truly memorable learning experiences.

Scenario-based learning allows learners to consider a real-world problem and use their knowledge and skills to resolve it. Our world of work is full of challenges, and incorporating scenarios into training provides space to brainstorm solutions, try something new or different, make mistakes, and gain insight into possible outcomes. With less severe consequences than learners will find in their real worlds, scenarios can make failure feel safer while encouraging reflection on what will lead to a desired outcome. For learners to take something beneficial away from the experience, any scenario they consider should be as realistic as possible.

Constructing and leveraging authentic scenarios can be daunting, but there are a few great ways you can make them meaningful and relatable.

Use your own experiences. There’s a reason storytelling is one of talent development’s favorite strategies; humans have been telling stories for tens of thousands of years, and that’s because our daily experiences can lead to moments of inspiration and words of warning. Consider your own stories and what others can learn from them when constructing scenarios. Your experiences are important, and the lessons you learned from them might provide a great foundation for scenarios your learners can explore during training.

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Although our experiences tend to follow a traditional story arc with a beginning, middle, and end, your scenarios may not follow the same trajectory. Eliminate details or components as needed to focus the scenario on your learning outcomes or provide space for learners to consider alternative solutions.

Borrow experiences (with permission!). When you don’t have a real-world experience connected to your training, borrowing a story from a colleague can help you develop a scenario that maintains an authentic feel. If you have a colleague whose experience would lend itself to a great scenario, ask for permission before using it, especially if your learners are familiar with them or the scenario itself. When you have permission, take time to interview your colleague about their situation, how they felt, what strategies they considered, and what worked—or didn’t work. These details can help you formulate a believable and relatable scenario, and you’ll be more prepared to facilitate reflections or debriefs with a complete understanding of the example and its outcome.

Embrace the mess. Often, we want scenarios to wrap up neatly to model what a successful outcome looks like. The real world is too messy for every scenario to end well. Don’t be afraid to develop scenarios that reflect ambiguity, difficult conversations, and compromise. Save time to fully debrief them and explore any emotions they uncover. While your goal should not be to frustrate your learners, scenarios offer a unique opportunity to experience less optimal outcomes and help learners prepare to face them in the course of their work.

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As my session wrapped up, I let my learners in on my secret: The scenario we discussed was based on a real experience. As they filed out of the room, one attendee paused in front of me. “I have no idea if I’ll face anything like what you had to handle,” she said, “but I certainly feel ready to try.”

A realistic scenario can make a real difference—and it’s time to let our stories shine as we build them.

Are you ready to create and integrate your own scenarios? Join me at Core4 in Washington, DC, July 24–26, 2023, to explore how you can build, leverage, and facilitate impactful scenario-based learning!

About the Author

Stephanie Hubka, CPTD, wants to live in a world where learning is exciting and inspiring and training is recognized as a natural driver of an organization’s strategy. For the past 15 years, she has provided strategic leadership and expertise on professional learning and organizational performance solutions to companies in more than 50 countries. As the managing partner of Protos Learning, she specializes in developing strategies and products that advance a company’s mission and vision.

Hubka holds a bachelor of science degree from Carnegie Mellon University’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and is a Certified Professional in Talent Development (CPTD. She volunteers for the Metro DC Chapter of ATD and served as the chapter president in 2016, and she has served as a National Advisor for Chapters since 2017.

4 Comments
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Thanks for sharing these ideas! To make something relatable it needs to come from truth and I think we will find that many places seem to face some of the same problems and showing how other have solved them or walking through a solution is a great idea.
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Thanks for sharing these tips. I've also worked on creating realistic scenarios that involve situations that I'm aware of but changing the names and circumstances -- storytelling as you call it. I'm curious what your thoughts are about using AI prompts to help do scenario creation?
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Thanks, Stephanie. We create a lot of scenario-based learning. This is helpful.
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