Context: a day, or a deal?

When you’re trying to help someone acquire new skills or knowledge, whether through formal training or material they’ll go through independently, it’s hard to beat analogies.

The right analogy invites a person to consider a comparison. If someone already knows what HTML tags are, you can compare a CSS to a master switchboard, a place where with one entry you can turn all the text in <p> tags blue, or set all the images to be centered.

One drawback to analogies: the first one that occurs to you (or at least to me) isn’t always the most original… or helpful. Haven’t people compared workgroups to sports teams one time too often for you?

Analogies depend on context: the context of the task at hand, and the context of the comparison. Grabbing the first analogies that lifts its comparative hand leaves you at risk of being predictable.

Or of missing an opportunity.

I worked on a program for newly-hired salespeople at a inter-business software company. The new hires were experienced in sales, but for the more part were new to the business software field. As we searched for a unifying theme for the training, we thought of A Day in the Life of a Sales Rep. What could be more natural?

The problem was that this analogy overlooked a key facet . The fundamental context of a sales rep’s work isn’t a day — it’s a deal.

A Deal in the Life worked on so many levels:

  • Our clients — sales managers and the vice-president — lit up when we said we wanted to use a deal to explain how the new hires could succeed in their new jobs
  • Our experts understood at once when we asked them to show how some group or process fit into the goal of closing a deal
  • Our new hires worked through case studies for key products and services. All the presentations and background maintained the same focus: here’s what product X does, here’s who can benefit, here’s how you go for a deal.

It’s not always obvious what the real context is for guiding on-the-job performance, but it’s well worth the time to figure it out.