What’s the simplest thing that could possibly work?

Ward Cunningham describes the process of asking the question “What’s the simplest thing that could possibly work?” as part of extreme programming. The idea is to whittle down the complexity and whatever might be blocking a developer from delivering a piece of working software and deliver something that people could actually see functioning. It’s a way of becoming unstuck. The idea has generated some controversy in the past, but the basic concept can be applied to field of learning and enablement.

Beware of bells and whistles that add nothing.

It’s very easy to get caught up in hype and focus on the hot new technology or learning solution over simply enabling customer and business success.


Avatars in e-learning are probably one of the most familiar examples of an abused technique. One learning organization had the essentials of a fairly simple Web-based training course completed, but added significant time, effort and complexity to incorporate an animated character into the course. The business unit was frustrated by the cost of lost opportunity created by delays. It’s likely that end users would have chosen to get the course earlier without the avatar, so that they could get their jobs done.


There are times when gamification techniques can inspire, motivate and energize people to gain knowledge, pick up skills or engage in desired behaviors on the job. However, gamification for the sake of bragging rights can be a costly mistake. The investment may be better spent on removing impediments that are preventing someone from adopting the knowledge, skills or behaviors.

Unsure of whether a bell or whistle really makes a difference? Try A/B Testing.

In the spirit of making decisions based on data and analytics, rather than guessing about the effectiveness of a new capability for your particular situation, try A/B Testing. Although there is an initial cost of developing two versions of part of a solution, the investment can:

  • Separate the hype from the reality
  • Validate that a shiny object is really an innovation that matters
  • Ensure the investment in the new capability is a sound longer-term strategy
  • Improve the engagement or effectiveness results for the current course or audience

Dark Learning recommends simplicity.