Cover Image
close this bookDesigning Human Settlements Training in African Countries - Volume 2: Trainer's Tool Kit (HABITAT, 1994, 182 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentForeword
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe lecture
View the documentVisual aids
View the documentQuestion and answer
View the documentDiscussion
View the documentDemonstration
View the documentSimulation
View the documentThe case method
View the documentCritical incidents
View the documentRole-playing
View the documentInstrumentation
View the documentBrainstorming
View the documentNominal group technique (NGT)
View the documentForce field analysis
View the documentAction planning
View the documentOther learning transfer strategies
View the documentPerformance analysis & needs assessment
View the documentTraining impact evaluation
View the documentTraining the staff to train
View the documentCoaching
View the documentTeam development
View the documentRole negotiation
View the documentIntergroup conflict intervention
View the documentOrganizational goal setting
View the documentA closing note

Critical incidents

Learning Emphasis

Organization Focus

People are usually more convinced by reasons they discovered themselves than by those found by others

- Blaise Pascal

Critical incidents are brief, written descriptions of difficult situations faced by people in their work. Unlike case studies which tend to be long and complex, critical incidents are short, focused on a specific subject and designed to emphasise a particular point related to one of the objectives of a training course. Because they involve real problems - problems of vital and immediate concern to people - discussion of critical incidents can have enormous learning value for the individuals who have faced or are likely to face similar problems in their work.

Critical incidents are sometimes written by a trainer for use in helping workshop participants achieve a specific training objective. Trainers approach the task of writing critical incidents in one of two ways. First, the trainer might provide details about a problem but withhold information about how it was solved. Not telling participants how a problem was solved until after it has been discussed is desirable if the intent is to stimulate creative thinking about how to solve a problem. On the other hand, the trainer might describe both the problem and the solution. In this case, the objective is different. The intention is to promote application thinking. Since participants already know how the problem was solved, the focus is on how they can put this knowledge to use in managing problems of their own.

When writing a critical incident, the trainer should keep several things in mind. Critical incidents are meant to be short and simple so that they can be read and understood by participants during a training session. Because the incident is short, it should be targeted to a specific learning objective. Irrelevant facts often included in case studies to help participants learn to be discriminating should be omitted from critical incidents. The KISS rule applies when writing critical incidents: “Keep It Short and Simple.” On the other hand, enough information should be included about the problem to make the point the incident is intended to emphasise.

A trainer in a training-of-trainers programme in East Africa, for example, wrote the following critical incident to provide substance for a discussion of the importance of needs assessment information to the development of training interventions that meet client expectations.


The city of Manchobwe has received a large grant to carry out a squatter settlement programme. While the Housing Department of the city has the responsibility for implementing the scheme, the town clerk is concerned about the ability of the management team to work together effectively. The director and his six bureau chiefs have been squabbling over small details lately, and these conflicts have affected the overall performance of their department. The town clerk has asked your Training Institute to design and conduct a team-building/project-planning workshop for these seven individuals. The intention is to develop a cohesive management team in light of the new project responsibilities.


1. What further details would you want in order to design a workshop for the town clerk?

2. From what source or sources would you seek this information?

Critical incidents also may be written by participants during or in advance of a training session, based on their own experience. When asked to write a critical incident, participants are given a worksheet and instructions by the trainer. They are told to think of a difficult situation related to the training topic in which they were involved personally. They are asked to describe the situation in detail, who was involved in it and the role they played. Depending upon how the incident is to be used, participants might be asked to explain what was done about the situation, the consequences of this and how they felt about it.

Critical incidents may be used as a learning experience for those who write them alone or may be used to stimulate discussion and critical thinking by a group of participants.


Prior to or at the start of a training programme, participants are asked to write a critical incident as described above. They are asked to include details about what happened, who was involved, what was done by whom, how it turned out and what feelings they have about their effectiveness in the situation. Participants may be asked, further, to analyse their incident using questions provided by the instructor on a prepared worksheet.

When participants have written the incident and completed the analysis, the incident is put aside. Toward the end of the programme, participants are asked by the trainer to return to the incident and to think about how they would cope with the situation now, using ideas obtained from the training. This is followed by a discussion of participant reactions and conclusions.

Note: A critical-incident worksheet developed for use in a training programme for local-government managers on power and influence has been reproduced below. It illustrates one simple format for writing critical incidents.


In some instances, the intention of the trainer is to use critical incidents prepared by individual participants as a basis for discussion and decision-making in small groups. Used this way, critical incidents are prepared and processed as follows:


Each participant is asked to prepare a written account of a work-related incident in which he or she is or was personally involved. The incident should present a problem that calls for someone to act or make a decision. Participants are told not to reveal (a) what was done about the problem if something was done, (b) the consequences of doing it, and (c) the consequences of not doing anything if that was what happened in the incident.


Participants are teamed up in groups of about five. Members of each group are told to share their incidents with one another. In each case, participants are told to respond to the incident by: (a) asking questions to clarify the problem; (b) discussing actions or decisions that seem appropriate for resolving the problem; and (c) agreeing on the best option. When this process is complete, the presenter reveals what actually happened in the incident. Each participant presents an incident in turn, and so forth, until all incidents have been presented and processed by the group.


When the groups have completed discussing all incidents, they are reconvened by the trainer to talk about the exercise. The focus is on the pitfalls of making decisions based on partial information.

Influencing Others: A Critical Incident Worksheet

Take a minute to think back to a situation in your work experience when you made a conscious effort to influence someone to do something. Get the situation clear in your mind. Review it mentally, recalling as many details about it as you can. When you are ready, use the space below to answer these questions about the situation: Whom did you try to influence? What did you actually do to influence them? How did it turn out? What were your feelings about the outcome and your effectiveness as an influencer?



Critical incidents are written portrayals of actual work situations. They are, therefore, directly applicable to the needs of the individuals who create them and highly relevant to groups of learners who face similar challenges in their work. Critical incidents may be used as “before-and-after” training exercises for individuals or may be used to generate discussion and analysis in a group of training participants who share similar work experiences.