SAM: The rapid fire model of instructional design

The Successive Approximation Model (SAM) of instructional design is the brainchild of entrepreneur, Michael Allen. It is characterised by its fluid nature and ease with which instructional designers can pivot their courses and delivery.

Not all instructional designers enjoy this non-linear approach, favouring instead the hierarchical nature of ADDIE. With SAM, the multiple steps of instructional design occur concurrently and quickly.

SAM, instructional design, collaboration, ADDIE, iteration

Problem-solving drives SAM and the model uses a three phase approach to design:

The Preparation Phase

The purpose of this initial stage is to quickly gather up all the relevant background information that is needed. Learners' needs drive the solution that is to be found. The process is collaborative and at this, and every phase of the process, all stakeholders are involved in the discussions.

The Iterative Design Phase

This is also known as the Savvy Start.

Again, multiple points of view are heard in this next phase which is driven by iteration. In this collaborative state, prototypes are created and the fast pace of this phase means that no one becomes too precious about a design solution and can move on quickly if it doesn't work. Constant iteration is more desirable at this stage than concrete solutions.

The Iterative Development Phase

The group now rotate between the stages of development, implementation and evaluation. A design proof is created which will now go through a stage or phase gate process of iteration. This begins in the Alpha stage (the first complete version of the instructional design product), moving to the Beta stage which is a version of Alpha post-feedback and then finally the Gold stage which is a version of the instructional design product after feedback is derived from the Beta stage.

SAM involves fewer steps than ADDIE and is driven to a greater extent by the constant need to iterate. ADDIE is a waterfall process that will suit some organisations and designers that enjoy a more structured approach to instructional design. I would like to showcase a scenario in which I used SAM to create an instructional design product to bring to life this model so you can see how it could work in practice:


Hexis21 is a training organisation that wants to create a Thinking Skills Masterclass as an online digital learning course. The SAM model will be used.

Phase 1: The Preparation Phase

In this first phase the lead instructional designer (also the course instructor), the budget holder and one other instructional designer are involved in collating background knowledge.

  • We identify the course objectives: to develop the problem-solving and creative thinking skills of graduates and professionals to secure their future career by honing these in-demand and essential skills.

  • We identify the modules that will be taught: creative, critical and strategic thinking skills.

  • We establish a timeline for development: 6 weeks.

  • We establish any existing resources: some existing writing from the instructional designer on mindset that can be repurposed as part of a video script.

  • We confirm that the interaction element will involve a LinkedIn group.

Phase 2: The Iterative Design Phase

In this phase, all participants collaborate on the design, prototype and reviewing of the course.

We establish that the mode of instruction will be asynchronous but then we realise that there is a synchronous element to the LinkedIn group which could incorporate live challenges.

We take stock of the resources that we are going to need to begin building the course and understand that we need to purchase an external microphone for mobile phone video recordings as initial recordings were poor quality in terms of audio.

We discuss what we will include in each of the three modules and then realise that there is too much so we decide to circle back and make three separate courses rather than one large course. This means that we can get the product to market quicker and receive feedback from our students which can then inform subsequent courses that meet the requirements of our core customer base. It is decided that the first course will be about creative thinking.

The prototype is sketched out using storyboard software and we realise that we need to remove a module on systems thinking because this would be a better fit in the strategic thinking course that we will build at a later date.

Phase 3: The Iterative Development phase

Finally the group moves to creating content samples which outline detailed components of the course. This includes tasks, assignments, downloadable resources and video content.

We seek feedback from a small group of relevant individuals who provide feedback on the Alpha stage. One piece of feedback that we receive is that although design thinking is mentioned briefly in one video lesson, it is such an in-demand skill that a full lesson this way of thinking would be desirable. You can view this below:

We consider the time and resource implications of this and decide to move forward in this direction. We create a design thinking module with corresponding crib sheets to help students structure this approach in their own contexts.

Now we have a Beta course which again we seek feedback on. This time we realise that learners would like to try more exercises within the course that are video based. We consider the time and resource implication of this and decide that because this will enhance the learning experience and we can create a video quickly and easily to facilitate this, we create the Innovation Playbook video.

We receive positive feedback on the Beta version of the course and based on some comments and suggestions we decide to create a downloadable workbook that contains additional practice exercises.

The Gold phase is now reached and the course is approved and launched.

You can check the Creative Thinking Masterclass course out here

I enjoyed using SAM as a model for instructional design because I do like a fast-paced process. I enjoy clear momentum and tangible progress in a project. I also enjoy the collaborative nature of the approach and the fact that the model enabled us to pivot our offering quickly. With other instructional design projects that I have been involved in, a more rigid approach has been required by the project brief and so SAM would not have been possible. This project and this one that I created did not allow for collaboration and demanded a much more linear flow so I used the ADDIE model.


If you want to learn more about SAM as a model of instructional design, access the links below:

Allen Interactions

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