Branching scenario design out-loud #1: analysing the needs

This is the first of a series of posts where I walk through the creation of a complex  branching scenario example, from starting idea to finished Storyline module. I hope it will be useful and encouraging to anyone starting out with elearning branching scenarios and take it a step beyond Designing Predicaments, which has one mini-scenario as its focus.

In terms of Working Out Loud I’m cheating a little as I’m not doing it ‘live’ but in retrospect, working through the decisions I made creating a scenario for a demonstration a couple of years ago. But I should be able to remember what we did and why, and also be able to comment from the point of view of ‘If I’d known then what I know now.’  I’ll do this as a series of weekly episodes.


Here’s the whole working-out-loud-branching-scenario  series so far:

  1. Analysing the needs
  2. The learning approach
  3. The scenario decisions
  4. The situation and characters
  5. Prototyping in Twine (part 1)
  6. Prototyping in Twine (part 2)
  7. The full prototype 
  8. Into Storyline

The topic

Jackie Jamieson, who worked on the elearning branching scenario example with me
Jackie Jamieson, who worked on the elearning branching scenario example with me

Our story begins with identifying the needs. This module wasn’t written for a specific client, it was written for a demonstration and potential for an off-the-shelf package.  The subject expert was Jackie Jamieson of  Inspiring Solutions Scotland Ltd (

Jackie had already taught this topic as part of management and leadership skills, and had a script and set of key learning points, but I took her back to basics and ran Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping process with her, as this is how I would begin any real project.
She settled on Giving Positive Feedback as a topic. She felt that management training and articles focused too much on giving corrective feedback, with a range of styles, from smiling to ‘firm’.  There seemed to be an assumption that giving positive feedback needs less thought, can be done on the fly and everyone knows how to do it – the only issue is remembering to do it. She thought it was worth more attention and also that poor attempts at praise and encouragement can actually demotivate people.

Action mapping stage 1: the success measure

The first stage of Action Mapping would be to agree the way your client will measure success. Without a client we had to imagine it:
  • engagement measures would improve as managers give feedback that helps their team’s motivation
  • performance measures would improve as managers clearly identify and praise the kind of behaviours and performance they are looking for
With a specific client, of course, the measures would have been more specific.

Action Mapping stage 2: target behaviour to achieve the success measure

Once we move to stage two of Action Mapping we can be more specific and look at the behaviours that constitute giving positive feedback effectively. What is it that effective managers do when giving positive feedback?
These are the actions she wanted to isolate:
  1. they deliver the feedback in a situation that is suits the personality and preferences of the individual.  While some people enjoy receiving attention in front of their teammates, others would want privacy.
  2. they deliver the feedback in a standalone conversation with no other agenda –  particularly they don’t ‘sandwich’ it with other negative feedback
  3. they make the feedback as specific as possible, isolating the actions the person took
  4. they put it in context, mentioning how the person’s actions helped the organisation
  5. if the person dismisses the praise, as some people will do, they restate and reiterate it
  6. they show genuine gratitude, not just performing their ‘duty’ to give positive feedback

Action Mapping stage 3: barriers to good performance

The next stage of Action Mapping is to ask why other managers don’t do these things as well as effective managers. In other words, what are the barriers to good performance? This is what emerged from our conversation:
  1. They deliver praise in the context in which they’d like to receive it.
  2. they have heard of the ‘sandwich’ technique and think positive feedback is a way of preparing the ground for corrective feedback, balancing it with praise “Your dress sense is really good. You just need to work on your recordkeeping, which really isn’t up to par. But I’m very pleased with your handwriting”.  This technique goes against the psychology of most employees, who will remember only the negative.  Most people are wise to the technique now, and will often follow the initial praise with ‘Is there a but … coming?’
  3. they find the act of giving praise a bit embarrassing, and will often gloss over it with ‘Good work!’ ‘You did well!’. They may be acting out of a sense that their staff member is generally good and that needs to be acknowledged, but without specific instances of good decisions or actions by the person. While it can be pleasant for the recipient, it’s not informative and doesn’t provide any guide to the way to act in future.
  4. they forget that they have to represent the organisation – it’s about more than just ‘I’m pleased with your performance’.  This isn’t just a personal relationship.
  5. The opposite fault is that they do it in a flat, emotionless way as a formality that has to be ticked off, because they don’t recognise any personal gratitude
  6. they collude in a staff member’s embarrassment at receiving praise (‘I’m just doing my job’) and take this as a cue to leave the subject and move on

Is learning the answer?

The next step is to ask, looking at these, how far learning might be expected to improve them. It often emerges that the main barriers to performance aren’t a lack of knowledge or skill but factors in the work environment such as reward systems, organisational culture and the technology used. Without a ‘real’ client we couldn’t take these into account, so we concluded that all the target behaviours could be addressed by providing knowledge and / or skills practice, and that an online scenario could provide realistic practice. The weakest case was for the ‘genuine gratitude’ one, much of which could only be identified by less tangible interpersonal behaviours, that might only be observable in the actual situation. Nonetheless we could include some pointers toward the right attitude in the module.
 Any feedback – positive or otherwise – on this branching scenario example is welcome: please pop it below.
I’ve written more on Action Mapping and scenarios

Next: the learning approach

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