Apr 242011

Orientation: An effective orientation program design in eleven steps

Why Orientation Programs Waste Time

Orientation, By Lenn Millbower, the Learnertainment® Trainer

My opinion of most organization orientation programs is pretty low. They tend to focus on the lockers, paycheck pickup location, legal policies and compliance stuff written by lawyers that few people care about.

Lockers, locations, and legal are of course important, but so is organizational effectiveness. Orientation programs are the perfect vehicle for aligning employees with the organization.

The first article in the series pointed out the orientation opportunities lost:

Orientation programs are often a waste of new employee time. This article series showcases a more effective approach to orientation.

New employees come into an organization full of excitement, questions, and insecurities. Often, hired for their specific skills or potential, these new employees know very little real information about the organization they are joining. An orientation program is a chance to answer new employee questions, introduce them to the real company, and built confidence in their ability to align with the organization.

And yet, orientation programs tend to focus on the mundane, the legal, and the corporate speak. It’s an opportunity lost. New employees certainly need to know where their lockers are, who their bosses are, what the corporate policies are, what could get them fired, and where they will work, break, and get paid. All these are important.

What is equally important, and often overlooked, is how what the new employee wants aligns with what the organization needs. A mission statement gets part of the way there, but is too corporate-speakish to apply directly to the new employees situation.

It is in this lack of alignment between new employee and the organization that is the biggest opportunity lost. New employees who know what they want out of the organization, what the organization wants from them, and how those two missions align is primed to be fully engaged in corporate success.

In this article series, this Examiner will offer an alternative orientation program plan: one that places alignment front and center. One where new employees are in sync with the organization and their own lives. It’s a mission bound to succeed. 

An effective orientation program design in eleven steps:

The next several articles in the series share eleven steps to a more effective orientation program. Those steps follow.

Step One – Focus

As we discovered in the last article, orientation programs miss a major opportunity when they fail to align new employees with the organizational mission. The first step in correcting this mistake is to focus the intent of the orientation program.

Start with your organization’s overarching purpose. If your corporate mission statement is not overly bureaucratic, it may provide clues. Current advertising may also suggest ideas.

For example, Wal-Mart’s mission statement could be defined as “Save money. Live better.” Apple Computer might use something like “classy technology for a cool life.” From this Examiner’s time as a Disney training leader, the Walt Disney Company’s can be stated as “delivering the finest in family entertainment.”

Whatever business your organization is in, there is likely an overarching purpose that motivates the entire enterprise. Find that first. It will be the glue that gives your orientation program purpose and focus.

Although current advertising can be instructive, be careful to avoid a flavor-of-the-month advertising campaign. Avoid the message of the moment. Instead, find that underlying reason the organization exists.

Step Two – Theme

Using your organization’s mission as the hook, identify a program theme. In the prior article, we identified possible themes for three different organizations: “Save money. Live better” for Wal-Mart,“classy technology for a cool life” for Apple Computer and as “the finest in family entertainment” for The Walt Disney Company.

With your organization’s overarching mission in mind, create a one-sentence theme for your program. The idea is to have a mission statement for your orientation program; one that will help you identify content that aligns and content that does not. Additionally, this mission statement will help your new employees make sense of the organization and their overarching responsibilities within it.

Once you have an orientation program mission statement, test it out on other employees and leadership. Verify that the statement aligns with the organization, and makes sense to those already within it.

Do not proceed with a design until you have completed this step. To proceed would be akin to building a house without a blueprint. One of the biggest mistakes you could make would be to proceed without this blueprint.

Orientations that are purposeless become a mush of policy statements divorced from context. Delivering them may satisfy the legal department, but will have little positive impact on those required to attend the program.

Step Three – List

Now that you have identified your focus and your theme, it is time to begin identifying content that might be covered during the orientation program.

List all the items that could be taught in the orientation. Don’t be concerned yet with the practicality of each item. Instead, seek to capture all possible content.

This is an ideal time to honor those impractical ideas that may be being championed but should not be included. Include all these ideas at this stage.

An ideal listing mechanism is to have your subject matter experts write each item on a separate sticky note. Place two easel pad sheets on the wall and direct your participants to place their sticky notes on one of the sheets. Do not write a header on any of these sheets. You will add a header to each sheet later.

Once this list is complete, group identical and like items together. Do not omit any items yet. You will do that in Steps Four and Five.

Step Four – Align

With your potential content identified, it is time to separate content that aligns with your theme from content that does not.

Taking your two sheets of easel paper and write Aligned on the top of one sheet and Not Aligned on the top of the other.

Next, display and explain your theme—as identified in Step Two—to your subject matter experts or your other project team members. Direct them to move the sticky notes posted during Step Three onto the appropriate Aligned or Non Aligned sheet

Once your participants have identified those items that align with the program theme, set aside those that don’t. Do not discard them. You may be able add them later as additional take-aways for the attendees.

Step Five – Separate

Once you have identified your orientation theme and identified content that aligns with that theme, the next step is to separate the content items into must-be-taught, should-be-taught, and could-be-taught piles.

Place three easel pad sheets on the wall. On each write a header: on one write “must-be-taught,” on another write “should-be-taught,” and on the last write “could-be-taught.”

Provide your team and/or subject matter expert with the sticky notes listing content you had created in Step Four.  Direct your participants—based on their determination of what must-should-could be taught—to place the sticky notes onto the appropriate sheet.

Once all the sticky notes are in place, either have them review and rearrange the notes again, or have a different group reassess and rearrange the notes.

Step Six – Reappraise

Now that you have identified your theme, listed all possible content, and separated content into “must-be-taught,” “should-be-taught,” and “could-be-taught” categories, it is time to reappraise the must-be-taught items.

Your goal in this step is to verify that your must-be-taught pile contains only absolutely necessary information.

Move anything you feel is not must-be-taught material into the appropriate should-be-taught or could-be-taught category.

With your listing now complete, compile the three lists into one document that you can share. Your goal is to build consensus around which items will or won’t be included in your orientation program.

Send the document to all interested parties and ask for feedback by a date certain. Your goal is consensus.

People will, likely, be slow to respond. Fortunately, silence is your consensus, and given all the thought that has gone into identifying content, you’ve already determined which piece of information belongs in which category.

If the feedback you receive suggests something needs to be moved to a different column, evaluate the reasoning behind the feedback and make our own determination.

You can now claim consensus. With consensus, you are now in a position to move to Step Seven.

Step Seven – Sort

With your theme in place, your main content identified, and that content agreed upon, the next step is to Sort the remaining content into three different buckets.

Those buckets are as follows.

  • Introducing the organization’s mission
  • Examining the organization’s mission in practice
  • Identifying ways the individual is expected to support that mission

Still using the sticky notes you compiled in Step Five, organize the content pieces into those three buckets.

Any content that does not fit within one of the three buckets should be set aside, but not yet discarded. Opportunities for adding that content may occur later.

Once you have organized the content into those buckets, it is time to move on to Step Eight. The next article in this series will discuss Step Eight of eleven steps for creating an effective orientation program.

Step Eight – Sequence

If you’ve been following these steps, you now have a clearly focused message for your orientation program. You know what content points must be taught, and you know which bucket each content piece belongs in.

Your next step is to sequence your orientation program using the following flow.

  1. Experiencing a mission – Your attendees should experience a mission before you begin teaching the content. Your goal is to create a holistic image of a mission in the participants’ minds. This step has traditionally been called an icebreaker. Although the opening does use an activity, and unlike many icebreakers, the goal is content introduction rather than breaking the ice.
  2. Defining what a mission is – In this segment, you debrief the prior experience and use that debrief to define what a mission is.
  3. Identifying the participants’ personal missions – Next you state that even people have a mission and ask your participants to consider what goals of theirs prompted them to join your organization. Use the resulting comments as a vehicle for participant introductions.
  4. Introducing the organization’s mission – With the idea of a mission now firmly established, introduce the organization’s mission.
  5. Examining the organization’s mission in practice – Next, provide an opportunity for your participants to evaluate your organizations performance in achieving that mission. This is an ideal opportunity to explore the organization’s location, meet the managers, discover employee specific logistic information, and watch customer service in action. Then, return to the classroom and take observations about the mission in action.
  6. Identifying ways the individual is expected to support that mission – Still in the classroom, share the required information about organization policies, expectations, and ramifications of non-compliance.
  7. Identifying possible alignments for the individual and organizational missions – With the tough information out of the way, turn your attention to aligning the new employee with the organization. Ask the participants to examine their goals listed earlier and ask them to identify ways their missions align with the organization’s.
  8. Planning next steps for delivering that alignment – Finally, ask the new employees to plan and share next steps they can take to deliver effectively against both their, and the organization’s, missions. Finally, close with a celebration of some sort that “officially” welcomes the new employees into the organization.

Step Nine – Pilot

Now that you have identified the mission of your program, its theme, critical content, and sequence, it is time to test the program.

Plan on conducting two pilot sessions, with the pilot dates far enough apart to make necessary changes in-between. If your first pilot is a success, you likely won’t need a second. Nevertheless, build a second session into your timeline.

Many organizations include leadership, subject matter experts, and other stakeholders in their pilots. Although it is important for these people to be included, their opinions—assuming you have already solidified the right content—are not especially relevant. What matters is the effect the content delivery has upon your end users. When you plan the pilot, try to bias the mix of attendees in favor of those end users. Their opinions may validate your design in spite of SME contrary opinions.

Select a reliable facilitator to deliver the content. It is critical that this person be able to deliver the agreed upon information and avoid slipping into old content or side tangents.

When conducting the pilot, begin by stating some ground rules, including, and most importantly, that those attending, even if they already know the subject matter, are expected to maintain the stance of a new hire throughout the session so that the program flow and timing can be experienced, and so that the new hires attending can experience a real event. After the presentation has concluded, time will be allowed for opinions, comments, and observations.

During the presentation, stop any sideline conversations, technical questions, and expert comments as quickly as possible. Although the commenters mean well, their observations will prevent you from experiencing a true test of the program.

Finally, resist the temptation to interrupt yourself. Sit in the back of the room and lead by example.

Step Ten – Debrief

In Step Nine, we discussed procedures for conducting pilot programs. In this step, we examine a process for facilitating the debrief that should occur immediately after the pilot presentation ends.

When the presentation ends, ask for comments. Begin with an around-the-room process. Ask for one comment from each participant about what he or she liked, or what worked, during the presentation. Do not allow anyone to monopolize the conversation. Instead, gather comments from each participant, so that all points of view, not just those held by the more boisterous, are aired.

Select a scribe. It is important that this scribe record every comment on easel paper. Even if the comment is off base, or you have no intention of using the suggestion, your intent should be to allow anyone with something to say to get it out. You can, after the pilot, determine which pieces of advice to accept and which to ignore. Providing this opportunity will immensely help in creating support for the resulting program.

Once you have taken positive comments from everyone, conduct a second around-the-room round. This time ask people to share what could be improved. Again, do not allow anyone to dominate the discussion. Again, accept all comments and write them down. As necessary, ask questions to clarify your understanding of the comments. Discourage people from talking out of turn. Your goal is to hear every opinion, even from those who are not inclined to speak up.

Next open the floor for additional comments.

Return again and again to the new hires attending and ask their opinions. They are, after all, the ones whose opinions matter most.

Finally, after everyone has had an opportunity to state their opinion, thank all for attending and outline next steps.

For you, next steps may include anything from an immediate rollout to a second pilot.

Step Eleven – Assess

No matter how good your orientation program now is there will be room for improvement. It is important to assess the program’s effectiveness.

Keep a record of those new hires that attended and reach out to them via short survey one month after their orientation, and again in an interview two or three months after. Track improvement trends or regressions in new hire effectiveness based on attendance in the new program. Finally, watch for any unexpected issues that may surface.

Six months after the roll out, assess the need to tweak the orientation program and take any necessary steps confident that, because of all the work you did in Steps One through Ten, you have an excellent orientation program that absolutely does not waste new employees’ time or deflate their excitement.

With tweaking, it will only get stronger

I cannot guarantee that you will have an effective orientation if you follow these steps, but I can guarantee that the result will be much more effective than that legal jargon most poor new hires suffer through.

Thank you for reading. May all your learning programs “break a leg!”

Lenn Millbower, the Learnertainment® Trainer

Related Orientation Information:









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Orientation, McDonald Sales and Marketing, LLC