Why My Best Projects Started Outside the Office

If you are like me and spend most of your days in front of a computer or in meetings, a day out of the office sounds fun… and it often is. But I have also found that planning a day out of the office to observe and learn more about a training project I am working on is extremely beneficial… and productive.

It Provides Context

I have designed training for several very technical topics that felt like a foreign culture with its own language, customs and traditions. I could have spent hours pouring over manuals, diagrams, and articles on the internet with likely very little benefit. Instead, I learn so much more when I spend time observing and talking to people who do the work. I don’t expect to learn enough where I could do the job myself. That’s not my goal. However, that short amount of time spent in the field gives me context of the work, a better understanding of my audience, and helps me ask better questions later in the project. It also allows me to take pictures — lots of pictures. Images that I could never find as stock art and images that will later create more authentic training materials.

It’s an Opportunity to Build Relationships

I prefer that when I email people, they know who I am beyond my email signature line. I have found that whenever I take time to meet managers and employees on their terms and in their space, it allows me to build working relationships with others who I would have never met just sitting at my desk. And I have learned that when you are interested in learning about what someone does, they are not only willing but excited to share their ideas and experiences.

Tips to Put to this into Practice

While I know this is not practical for every project, here are a couple of suggestions to help you schedule and conduct a job observation:

  • Schedule this early in the project, before you start designing training material
  • Start your request with the appropriate level of manager and ask their help in finding the right employee to work with
  • At every stage in the process, clearly explain the reason for the observation
  • Be prepared to present a business case
  • Explain the purpose of the training and how the observation will help the project
  • Be flexible when scheduling the place and time, you should go to them
  • Show up ready to learn as much as possible
  • Be open to how the experience may affect the project — I have had job observations shift a project’s scope more than once
  • Thank those involved early on and when the project is done, recognize their contributions

Note: The featured picture is of me “fixing” a pandrol clip in rural Minnesota during track inspections. Please be aware that being near railroad tracks is not only trespassing, it is very dangerous. I had permission to be where I was, take pictures, and was working under the protection of a qualified foreman and Form B.