“Houston, we have a problem.” – Apollo 13

That single line, paraphrased and popularized in the 1995 blockbuster Apollo 13, revealed much more than the harrowing events of a near-fatal NASA mission. It demonstrated the power of action learning.

Without a realistic simulated environment on the ground, and the life-or-death incentive to resolve threats, the entire crew would have been lost. It is powerful proof that real problems, recreated in training, drive real results.

On the surface, designing effective learning experiences can seem simple. New system? Teach users to reference the system documentation. New reporting structure? Teach employees to use the org charts. But those tools and training are only a sliver off the tip of the learning iceberg.

Learning experiences must address real-world situations. We must teach the critical, the common, and the catastrophic. Why? Participants will buy in only to training that is meaningful and models their on-the-job reality. And organizations will benefit only from employees that teach the right behaviors for each situation.

Designers can’t just cover the expected daily responsibilities and tasks. We can’t stay on the “happy path.” We must alter that smoothly paved highway to include the bumps, potholes, and road closings that can (and do) occur along the way. In short, when training includes opportunities to identify and solve real business issues, participants learn and organizations benefit.

Here’s how to deliver realistic problem-solving experiences:

Branch out from common tasks to common problems. The straight and narrow is a great starting point, but it’s not enough. Let’s say you’re designing training for department store employees. You include scenarios on accepting purchase returns. In the common scenario, it’s relatively simple: (1) Scan receipt. (2) Enter return reason code when prompted. (3) Press the Return button. Great! You can give them several scenarios using different reason codes. But don’t stop there. Ask, “What if…?” What if the customer doesn’t have a receipt? What if it’s past the time window to accept the return? What if this makes the customer mad? (Or really mad?) What if there’s a technical issue like an error message or a system outage? You can see that the answers to these questions are ripe with possibility. So take the time to follow that not-so-happy path, to arrive at learning gold.

Build in time to debrief the problem-solving experience. Create opportunities for learners to discuss how they solved the realistic problem – how they behaved, what process they followed, and the results they achieved. Whether you use individual reflection or group discussion, make learners responsible for identifying outcomes. This debrief reinforces the value of following procedures and processes, especially if they are a significant change to the way things were done before.

Connect to the bigger picture. Help learners identify and describe the effects of their new behaviors on coworkers, the team, the organization, and customers. This drives home how their actions influence others and the business. It also teaches the importance of replicating their performance in the training environment when they’re back on the job.

Keep learning fresh. “Use it or lose it” may be a cliché, but not all clichés are created equal; this one hits the mark. Don’t let those hard-earned learning wins go stale. When possible, train only what is needed or will be used immediately on the job. And extend the learning experience through check-ins, on-the-job challenges, or learning networks. Give employees as many opportunities as possible to apply new skills after their formal training.

No matter the industry – from actuaries to astronauts — the most powerful learning experiences are realistic and relevant. Make them your design priority, and you’ll help learners perform and succeed … no problem.