Episode 1: Focus… On the Learner

I’m thrilled to welcome Jillian Douglas and Shannon McKenzie today to our podcast, and the fact that they are our first interview just makes my heart so happy. Jillian Douglas and Shannon McKenzie are the co-founders of the Idea Learning Group here, in Portland, Oregon. Idea Learning Group is on a mission to transform workplace learning by providing clients with creative, engaging, and custom learning experiences. I can personally attest to how amazing this pair is, and I’ve been lucky enough for the past few years to have Jillian as a mentor. She’s been absolutely integral in shaping Edify with me, and I can’t imagine growing the company without her mentorship.

Jillian and Shannon share a passion for improving how people learn. After working together for years, beginning in 2002, in the retail and healthcare industries Jillian and Shannon realized they have the same work ethic and would make ideal business partners. Shannon’s technical in business operation’s knowledge compliment Jillian’s creativity and training background perfectly. They’ve developed a brand reflective of their strongly held belief that corporate learning experiences can and should be personal, experiential, and enjoyable.

Idea Learning Group has also been named to the Portland Business Journal’s top 100 fastest growing private companies multiple times. In addition, Jillian and Shannon released their first book in October 2016, titled, “Let Them Choose”. The book shows you how to get adult learners out of their seats and into station base activities catered to distinct learning preferences, interaction types, and technology options; part experiential, part social, and part emotional, the cafeteria learning style model encourages learners to explore and absorb content at their own speed and direction, and puts learners in the best position to succeed.

Tracy Adams, P.h.D, and change and learning specialist at Nike said of the book, “Finally a book that speaks the truth about the perils of corporate training. Bravo, to Jillian and Shannon for addressing the action-oriented, give it to me quickly, learning needs of today’s adults.” Cafeteria learning will be the next evolution of design criteria to usher instructional designers, trainers, and change strategists into the future. You’ll get to hear more about cafeteria learning, choice, and corporate perils in just a minute.

Shannon McKenzie: Good morning.

Kristen: I have Jillian Douglas and Shannon McKenzie, and want to know a little bit about them. They’re both the founders of Idea Learning Group.

Jillian Douglas: Shannon and I have worked together for, gosh, maybe about 15 years in a variety of different places before we started Idea Learning Group nearly eight years ago.

Kristen: What is your role in the business, Jillian?

Jillian Douglas: Right now, my role is primarily around business development, but I also am the creative lead, so making sure that every project that we execute fulfills the vision that we started the company with.

Shannon McKenzie: My role is, Chief Operations Officer, and so really it’s leading the team to make sure that our systems are followed, that we’re in place, that everything’s running smoothly.

Jillian Douglas: Making sure that we’re making money.

Shannon McKenzie: Making sure that we’re making money.

Kristen: That’s an important part of the business. Yeah.

Shannon McKenzie: Yep.

Kristen: Okay. Wonderful. Well, thank you for that. Let’s just dive right in then. I know that both of you have a very long history of learning design, instructional design, which at some point led you to starting the Idea Learning Group. How did you decide to start the company?

Jillian Douglas: Well, it was pretty simply. We both go laid off, and the market had just tanked, and there weren’t really any other opportunities, and so it was be out of work or create your own job. So, that’s what we did.

Kristen: Yeah. Very much a make it work situation.

Shannon McKenzie: Mm-hmm. And as we work together, we always … And we were both employed at the same company. We kind of skeemed about, “How could we make this better? How can we make learning design better?” And, we had some constraints within our current organization, so when we did get laid off at the same time we were kind of excited to get started in the work we’ve been wanting to do.

Jillian Douglas: Yeah. Do you think it’s the way that we felt like they should be done without the limitations of corporate structure.

Shannon McKenzie: Mm-hmm.

Kristen: Can you talk about that a little bit, the limitations of corporate structure? What does that mean?

Jillian Douglas: Well, of course you are always constrained by budgets; you’re constrained by the political climate that you’re working within; you’re constrained by … Just, you know, people like to do things that way they’ve always done them. And, one of the things that we hoped and have confirmed is true is that, as an outside consultant we were always given greater flexibility, greater creativity, and the ideas and concepts that you bring forward are somehow magically more well received than when you are an internal employee. As external consultants, because we’re being paid in a different way, because we set outside the organization our clients view us as experts, and give us the freedom that we ask for to do things in a creative and what we think is better way.

Kristen: Mm-hmm. And, that concept of doing something in a better way reminds me of the book that you’ve recently released? Can you talk briefly about that book, and what the book is designed to do for the learning world?

Shannon McKenzie: Our book is called, “Let Them Choose”, and it’s around our method that we created called, “Cafeteria Learning”, and really what it does is brings to life the vision of what we want learning to be, which is engaging, creative, really built around custom content, but the core of it is choice, and it’s giving learners the choice to learn in a way that they feel most comfortable.

Jillian Douglas: In addition to choice, the other big component of it is experiential, and hands-on, and discovery-based. We’ve had a lot of people ask if that can be … Cafeteria Learning can be delivered in a virtual environment. And theoretically, you can bring the choice component into a virtual learning experience, but we based Cafeteria Learning on the understanding that we have of the science of learning, and the research around how people learn best, and we know that hands-on, experiential, face-to-face, emotional interactions; all those things are really critical for learning to take place neurologically. And, paring that with choice for the learner, those two components together is what makes Cafeteria Learning work.

Kristen: Right. And, in this whole conversation and throughout the writing that you do online and elsewhere, I never see you talk about training. We haven’t even said the word training until just now. Talk to me about why you think about this as learning rather than training? I think training is the very traditional way to look at what we do.

Jillian Douglas: Yeah. We say we don’t use the “T” word. I remember a long time ago somebody saying, “You train dogs.” And at the time, I was really offended. And then, I processed that because I had such an emotional reaction to it I of course remembered it, which is one of the keys that we know that makes learning happen. I spent a lot of time processing that and realized that, he was right.

Training is, to me, it means a subject matter expert is standing at the front of the room, delivering content, and you are passively receiving it as a learning. And, that’s training. And when we think of learning experiences, it’s about the learner taking accountability and participating in the learning experience, and filtering the new content through their own experiences, and making meaning of it, and that’s what learning experience is. And, that happens over time and not just in a hour and a half afternoon session, where you’re sitting down and watching a PowerPoint.

Kristen: Right. Right. Exactly. I was actually just teaching a class about learning yesterday, and I used that phrase, “You train a dog and therefore I don’t like to talk about training.” I think I might have actually picked it up from you, maybe, a couple of years ago. But, the class of ’15, ’16 people looked up and said, “What do you mean? Of course you train a dog, but would we go to training?” It was a very interesting conversation for us to talk about. Of course, I don’t think of people or employees as animals, and we don’t want to train you like animals, right? So, we want to engage you in that conversation. But, how did you even come to this realization, right? You had this early career of learning development and learning design; started to realize there were a lot of corporate walls that you’ve probably coming up against, and obviously Cafeteria Learning came out of that. Can you talk to me about some of the experiences and examples where you said, “This just has to be different. We have to think about this differently.”?

Shannon McKenzie: I think the core, at the most basic, is that when there’s a presenter in front of a room it goes to that training. That’s how traditional training is built is that, there’s somebody at the front of the room; there’s a slew of people in the audience, and they listen, and they try to stay focused, and it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for us individually, and I think it doesn’t work for a lot of people. And, the research that we uncovered supports that.

Jillian Douglas: Doctor John Medina wrote a book called, “Brain Rules”, and he’s got a fabulous website, “Brainrules.net”. And, one of my favorite quotes from him is that, “If lecture was a business, it would have an 80% failure rate.” And that’s what traditional training really is, is just a lecture. If you’ve had an 80% failure rate in any other part of your company, of course you wouldn’t continue doing that. We just haven’t evolved as companies to realize that there can and should be another way. For us, I think the “Aha” moment was, we were designing a workshop for ATD Cascadia on the science of learning. And as we built it out and took a step back and looked at it, we realized that we were breaking most of the rules of the science of learning. Most of things we knew to be true about how people learn, we were breaking in this quote, unquote, “training.” And so, we had to stop and catch ourselves, and it was in that moment that Cafeteria Learning came to be.

Kristen: That’s an interesting concept you just touched on that companies haven’t evolved or learned to think about that learning function or the training function as a business that ought to not fail 80% of the time, right? We would never keep that on our books. Why do you think that is, and how do you help your clients see that differently because obviously they like working with you?

Jillian Douglas: Well, we start by asking our clients, “What is the behavior change that they’re hoping to see as a result?” And, we really push them to be able to articulate that. It doesn’t make sense for them to invest, really, quite a bit of time and money into something that they can’t see evidence of … So, if we really push them to articulate what that is, that’s sometimes quite difficult for people because they’re not accustomed to thinking about learning in that way of … And, you know, I think the “why”, is just that it’s never occurred to them otherwise. They’ve never seen examples of people considering training as something more than training.

Kristen: Yeah.

Shannon McKenzie: Well, and I think it goes back to the art. Education system is based on presentation. That’s what they trust; that’s what they know, and change is uncomfortable, and change is different, and if we want to teach something we just need to tell people what it is, that’s it. Once we tell them, they should do it. It’s kind of compliance based, and it really does have that 80% failure rate. So, if you’re gonna invest in something make sure that it works. Otherwise, what’s the point? That’s kind of, with Jillian and I personally, as well just as we run the business and anything that we do we want to make sure that we’re doing it for a reason, and I think that that is learning.

Kristen: Right.

Shannon McKenzie: We gotta do it for a reason.

Kristen: It reminds me of my experience with Cafeteria Learning the very first time when you were piloting out the Diversity Works program. I went away from that experience so thrilled, there were just … I can’t even remember how many stations, maybe, eight, nine, ten stations; different activities, and not one of them was a lecture based station. And then, trying to go and take that to people I knew, and tell them, “Wow, I’ve just experienced this really amazing learning opportunity, and I want you to see it, and I want you to understand it.”

I think, for people who haven’t seen something outside the box, if you will, that it’s almost like this is pretty far outside the box. This is pretty far away from, you’re sitting in a classroom, facing the front, listening to somebody. It can be kinda hard to wrap your mind around. How do you explain Cafeteria Learning? You talked earlier about the choice, and the opportunities to discover and to experience, but how would you explain the concept of Cafeteria Learning to someone who might be, let’s say, not a believer.

Jillian Douglas: Well, we’ve put together a video on our website, “Cafeterialearning.com”, and that I think does a pretty good job of explaining it. I think that there are some frequently asked questions or, maybe a better way to say it is, frequently … Frequent concerns that people have, and one of them in particular is, if everybody isn’t doing the same thing how do we know that they’re all learning the same thing? My quick, flip it answer is, “Well, what makes you think they’re all learning the same things anyway?”

Kristen: Right.

Jillian Douglas: But, to be a little more respectful, I think it’s to say, we’ve actually tested that, and we’ve put groups of instructional designers through several Cafeteria Learning programs without telling them what the learning objectives were at the start, and then asked them at the end to write learning objectives for the experience they just had. And, consistently, we find that they are coming up with remarkably similar learning objective. They’re telling us that they’re learning the same thing, and the quotes from the participants that we get throughout a variety of our workshops are things like, “This was amazing. Why didn’t we do this ten years ago?” And, “I was really nervous coming into this because I heard it was going to be different, but it was so cool to learn from my peers, and to have conversations that we wouldn’t ordinarily have had.” So, people are really getting it, and it’s resonating.

Kristen: Yeah.

Shannon McKenzie: And the other piece of it is, a really strong instructional design based on those learning objectives. So, there’s the framework; it’s not just showing up and jumping into activities because, for me personally as a learner, that makes me uncomfortable. I need to have a little bit of structure and know what’s the foundation that we’re going off of. There’s a real framework that we built into Cafeteria Learning, so it isn’t just jumping in and doing this, but you know it’s organized into tracks, on each activity in that track rules out to me a certain learning objectives.

Kristen: Okay. You guess what’s coming next.

Shannon McKenzie: Mm-hmm. That’s kind of a big part of it is the design. There’s a little bit more design work up front, but you get-

Jillian Douglas: You get that time back in the facilitation because it’s so easy to facilitate. Mm-hmm.

Kristen: And, it sounds like there might even be a business case there in terms of, maybe there’s more learning design that has to take place up front, but because it was more successful than a traditional learning experience, traditional training, you’re not spending money over and over again as a company to continue to invest in something that’s not working.

Jillian Douglas: Do it once, and do it right.

Kristen: Right.

Jillian Douglas: It’s by quality instead of-

Shannon McKenzie: Quantity.

Kristen: The other thing that I really liked that you just talked about, that I have never thought about before is the idea of testing your learning objectives after the fact. And, that actually is more of metric to me on your own instructional design skills. It’s also a metric on how well the class, actually, or the learning experience went, but that’s a really fascinating way to check yourself that you actually are designing for this learner so that they understand what is going on; that they’re getting something out of it.

The last thing I want to ask you about is, how do you connect this choice that we’re talking about, could really designing for learners needs? How do you connect that with the businesses needs? Again, we talked earlier about the 80% failure rate. If were to convert that into dollars, how are you connecting the learner needs to dollars?

Jillian Douglas: I don’t know that we’re making a direct connection to dollars when we’re talking with clients, but it’s really … And, our philosophy, it certainly doesn’t work and resonate with every potential client. We certainly have had to say goodbye to some clients that weren’t able to be philosophically aligned with us, and we’ve had to turn down some clients, but by and large most organizations who I think have a belief that, if you take of your people they will take care of the business, or if you take care of your staff they’ll take care of the customers. If they have that philosophy, then learner centered learning experiences make sense to them because it’s the same thing. Let’s take care of the learner, make sure that they have the best learning experience possible, and they will then be able to carry that forward into the business.

Kristen: Right.

Jillian Douglas: So, I think it’s for us making sure that we’re finding clients that are aligned with our philosophies.

Kristen: Right, that makes a lot of sense. Well, Shannon and Jillian, thank you so much. If there was a place that our listeners could go to learn more about the work that you do, learn more about Cafeteria Learning, where should they go?

Jillian Douglas: Idealearninggroup.com is our primary website. We also have an additional website, Cafeterialearning.com, for that particular methodology. And then, we’re also on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Kristen: Wonderful. Thank you so much.

Shannon McKenzie: Thank you.

Kristen: That’s all for today. Thanks so much for listening to me, your host, Kristen Gallagher, and Upright and Better. The podcast that shows you how to take your company up and to the right, and up and better. Got questions? E-mail us at, “Hello@uprightandbetter.com” or tweet us @Uprightbetter. And, you can read the transcript of this episode, see extended brief sources, and learn more about our guests at Uprightandbetter.com.