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Instructional Design to Development: How Long Does It Really Take?
Thursday, July 7, 2016
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Have you seen those instructional design to development ratios? You know, the ones that show it takes 40+ hours to design and develop one hour of classroom instruction?

The problem with these ratios is that even if they are accurate, they are simply not believable. I dare you to tell your boss or a stakeholder that it’s going to take a week of full-time work to put together an hour-long training program. I can guarantee with almost 100 percent certainty that not only will they be rolling their eyes inwardly (and possibly outwardly, too), but they will start actively looking for ways to show you the proverbial door.

In their mind, it takes 15 minutes to put together a PowerPoint deck and some notes to conduct an hour-long meeting. So, why does developing an hour-long training session take a full week? It’s 15 minutes versus 40 hours—there’s clearly a big disconnect that makes these ratios useless.

So, now what? How can you figure out and effectively communicate how long instructional design really takes?

Let’s start with time. In the project management world, of which you are inadvertently a part, there are two types of time: task time and elapsed time. To illustrate the difference, let’s say you have a task that you know will take eight hours of pure work to complete. The question is, “are you going to be able to sit down at the beginning of an eight-hour work day, work on this task straight through, and have it complete by the time you leave?” Probably not, right? Your eight hours of pure work will be undoubtedly be interrupted by meetings, impromptu conversations with colleagues, other priorities, coffee breaks, and the ensuing bathroom breaks. In fact, it might take you four days to complete this eight-hour task. These four days are your elapsed time.

Bosses and stakeholders do not care about task time. They care about elapsed time because that tells them when it, whatever it is, will be done. But, in order for you to figure out elapsed time, you need to start by figuring out task time. And these hard-to-fathom instructional design to development ratios are not helping you.

Here is the process I use when figuring out the elapsed time I need to convey to my clients. 

Step 1: Identify Deliverables 

Every training course consists of a series of deliverables. Examples of possible deliverables for classroom training include an instructor guide, participant guide, handouts, job aids, and slides. Deliverables for e-learning might include screen text, images, audio script, and storyboard. You get the idea. Think through what you will need to create and make a list. 

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Step 2: Sequence the Order in Which You’ll Create the Deliverables 

Sometimes the natural flow of the work dictates this order. For example, you can’t start off by writing the storyboard. Sometimes, the order is a little more flexible. In the latter case, I always start by creating the most comprehensive deliverable. This allows me to pull content from that deliverable to create the other deliverables. For example, sometimes the instructor guide is the most comprehensive deliverable I need to create for classroom training. I create it first and then re-use portions of the content for the participant guide. This speeds up the development process. 

Step 3: List the Steps You’ll Need to Create Each Deliverable, Including Reviews 

Steps might include review existing material, interview subject matter experts (SMEs), create notes, and review notes with SMEs. These steps should be fairly detailed. And, of course, they will be driven in part by the sequence of the deliverables you decided on in step 2. For example, if you plan to leverage content from the instructor guide to create the slides, you don’t need to re-interview the SMEs to create the slides. By listing the steps to create each deliverable, you are, in essence, creating a project plan. 

Step 4: Guesstimate the Time It Will Take to Do Each Step 

If the deliverable is more complicated, estimate more time. For example, it will take you longer to write a detailed instructor guide that someone else can use to deliver a training program than it will to write up a simple outline of what you’ll cover when you deliver one. I know. I know. This part feels uncomfortable because you are guessing. Just do your best. If you follow this process often enough, your guesstimates will become more and more accurate. Plus, I’ve found that even if my guesstimates for individual tasks are off, my guesstimate for the total time it will take to do the project is consistently spot on. And this is what we are shooting for. 

Step 5: Add 50 Percent to Your Guesstimates 

Why 50 percent? Research shows that when we context shift, we lose up to 40 percent productivity. Context switching means jumping from task to task (also known as multitasking). It might look like this: write facilitator guide, go to meeting, write facilitator guide, respond to colleague’s question on Slack, write facilitator guide, check email. Every time you switch from writing the facilitator guide to doing something else and back again, you lose 40 percent productivity. The extra 10 percent is just in case your initial estimates were overly optimistic. Plus, it makes the math easier. 

Step 6: Add It All Up 

Add your guesstimates to get the total task time for the project. This is the pure work effort you’ll need to put in to finish this project. You still don’t know how long the project will take, though. 

Step 7: Schedule It Out 

Review your calendar, taking into account everything else you need to do, and figure out how much time you’ll need to dedicate to this one project each day. If other people are going to be involved, guess (or better yet, check with them) to find out how long their part will take. For example, we never give SMEs fewer than three days to review something.

At this point, you’ve essentially created a project schedule that shows when you’ll be done. This has several important benefits. If your done date exceeds your due date, you’ll need to reprioritize how you are spending your time. This can be a conversation you have with your boss regarding what you should be working on. It can also mean making decisions such as skipping a meeting in which your presence is not critical. In other words, you’ll be able to plan instead of scramble.

You now have a credible way to communicate with your boss and stakeholders about what needs to be done and how long it will take. This can be the genesis of a conversation about cutting scope, pushing out the deadline, or getting help. It’s much harder to argue with a well-thought-out, documented plan than it is to argue with seemingly ridiculous ratios.

Over time this approach can help your team determine what is realistic to take on. Let’s face it. Time and energy are not infinite resources. If you are mindful about what something “costs,” you might choose to spend your time and energy only on the projects that have the most potential value to your organization.

Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from the API Consulting blog.

About the Author
Diane Valenti, founder of Applied Performance Solutions, Inc., uses her instructional design ninja skills to help companies reduce their sales onboarding ramp time and help sales teams rapidly acquire product knowledge. She works with Fortune 500 and startup companies, alike. Get Diane’s checklist to learn if you are making these 10 incredibly common mistakes that slow sales onboarding.
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