ATD Blog

How to Use Online Games to Help Learners “Fail-Fast”

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Recently I spoke at the ATD 2019 International Conference & Exposition and shared the story of an infamous swim coach. Self-trained in the art of teaching kids, his first lesson consisted of throwing new learners into the deep end of the pool.

Thank goodness he never lost a student to drowning. A few might still be traumatized by the experience, but few would forget the difference learned between their perceived and actual competence.

While such practices are frowned upon today (with good reason), trainers need to deliver a similar experience to many of today’s learners. They enter our classrooms (face-to-face and online) ready to race, to see how fast they can Google the session’s bottom line. Once they “win,” they zip through a 10-minute YouTube video and then they’re done. Now they must endure five hours and 45 minutes of checking email and distracting others. Or (I hope) they’ll just leave.

Provided the training is important, this outcome is a poor one for everyone. Their shortcut traps them in the Dunning-Kruger effect in which they fool themselves into thinking they aren’t novices or that expertise is dramatically overrated. What do they actually need? The modern equivalent of a surprise toss into cold water. How can trainers help their learners fail so fast it wakes them up to their incompetence? Let’s look at some ideas.

Get Into the Learner’s World

At the conference I used the example of a goal shared by the 300 attendees: trying to make the most of their participation at ATD 2019.

Fortunately, Harvard University’s Clay Christiansen’s “Jobs to be Done” framework offered some insights. I asked my session’s attendees these questions: “Why did you hire this conference?” and “What job do you expect it to do?”

This unusual wording puts learners' needs front and center, making their utility the primary concern. Even meta-answers such as to “please my boss” lead to interesting follow-ups regarding what that phrase means.


Most confessed (as I did) that they hadn’t given it a proper moment’s thought. We were as far from a best practice as we could be.

Unearth Expert Skills

In preparation for the conference, I spent around 30 minutes researching what expert conference goers recommend. While I have been to many such gatherings, I quickly realized I was only a novice.

But this isn’t unusual. Perhaps you have also found that when you question a subject matter expert (SME), you sometimes discover a counterintuitive context. Christiansen offers this hint: instead of asking SME’s what they do, query them about what job they want done to divine their hidden intent. This question helps determine all the micro skills they practice.

Create a Gap Experience

No one attends training hoping for the kind of quickie, bite-sized learning they can already find on YouTube. In the absence of a stimulating, immersive environment like a pool, they want a taste or sense of expert experience delivered by their smartphones. How should this be achieved?


First, accept that articles such as “The Top 10 Tips From 50 Experts” no longer work.

Instead, I provided conference attendees with a branched learning game called Help Laura Make the Most of ATD 2019, which I developed in about two hours. It consists of a simple scenario: In the few moments after being granted last-minute permission to attend a conference, a fictional attendee must make some key decisions. As her sidekick, you offer advice.

The quiz software I used is commonplace according to MyelearningWorld and Quora. The trickiest challenge was to extract the questions and answers that accurately reflected the expert’s skills. The best ones go against conventional wisdom and are only revealed via prolonged exposure to the field of expertise. They also happen to be the most difficult to uncover.

In other words, I recommend you give learners a fun game to play in which they’ll fail fast. In fact, it’s merely a trojan horse, which helps players experience the gap between their incompetence and expert performance. Once they become curious, the key is to jump in with the information they need and, hopefully, now want.

About the Author

Francis Wade is owner of Framework Consulting, which he runs from his home in Kingston, Jamaica. A Cornell University graduate and AT&T Bell Labs alum, he spoke at ATD’s 2019 International Conference & Exposition on the topic of enabling self-learning for employees. He applied these ideas in his book Perfect Time-Based Productivity.

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My fave section of this inaugural post is the list of cognitive issues and each one could be a blog post of its own! Thanks for your continued thought leadership and service to our profession.
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