Design dilemmas

Share this page

Written by Rob McWilliam on 13 August 2014

So, here’s a conundrum for you:  how do you reconcile the fact that our senior and middle managers are less available to attend longer courses away from the office, with the stipulation from an accrediting body that a qualification programme at their level must include at least 30 hours of guided learning time?

I’ve been facing up to this dilemma recently when a client asked me to design a strategic leadership programme for their ‘Heads of’ and newly appointed Directors. They also wanted the programme to enable the participants to achieve a qualification. Having checked with the criteria stated by their preferred professional body, I set off on my design journey.

As I mentioned earlier, there was a guidance note to say that the programme must include at least 30 hours of guided learning time. Online learning can count towards this but there was also a statement to say that the programme should include interpersonal elements such as action learning, peer coaching or executive coaching and mentoring.  And, of course, the programme had to include specified topics and content.  The hours equates to about four whole days, to be divided and delivered as you like, but there’s no escaping the day-to-day demands of the participants workload in working out a pragmatic and accessible use of time (see my article in TJ last month for a perspective here).

In my experience with programmes at this level, the participants are able to dictate the pitch of the content. For example, a session about delegation for new managers might take a more ‘taught’ approach, focusing on benefits and techniques. At more senior levels, such a session moves towards a facilitated discussion about using delegation to develop leadership in others, including experiences and ‘trip hazards’ drawn from performing as managers for longer.  In many ways, the participants could bring the entire content of the programme with them without us L&D specialists having to design a formal agenda. Fortunately, the ‘must haves’ for the qualification have taken this into account. 

So, given that the participants arrive with a great deal of knowledge, experiences, practices and habits and that we need to emphasise a coaching approach, a way to pitch the content is to design a number of dilemmas to explore, discuss and learn from.  Conundrums, dilemmas and problems appeal to our senior leaders.

Oh, and then there’s a 5000-word assignment to fit in. The dilemma here is how to ‘sell’ this to the target market!

This design project has challenged me – and therefore I’ve learned from it too. Around the content, I’ve researched leadership models and theories of learning to new depths.  In designing the activities, I’ve limited myself to scoping some facilitation questions to get conversations going and will work with the content that the participants bring with them. In meeting the needs of the qualification, I’ve devised ways of including content without having to formally ‘teach’ it. And I’m pleased to have designed the whole programme without any PowerPoint slides!

Designing learning for our senior leaders is a challenge.  Finding the balance of useful, engaging content while pragmatically applying it to their busy working lives means that there’s more chance that they’ll give priority (and hence, time) to their professional development. Then they’ll be keeping us in L&D busy too!


About the author
Rob McWilliam is executive development director at Change Formation. He can be contacted via

Related Articles

3 May 2022

Many UK organisations want to welcome Ukrainian refugees, but how do we turn recruitment rhetoric into a hiring reality? James Reed gives his view

11 May 2022

Jo Cook talks to L&D innovator Jeff Kortenbosch about his work on skills at Dutch bank de Volksbank

10 May 2022

Dan Whelan explores workplace development programmes and advises that personalisation and microlearning is crucial for success