Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Good News and the Bad News About Adventure Training

The CEO gets a gorgeous brochure in the mail about adventure training, and immediately he remembers his boot camp experience and how it changed his life. He remembers how he bonded with the guys, and what a difference that made when they were deployed. As he confronted his own fear and stress overseas, he knew the training made a difference.

Wouldn't it be great to give this experience to his teams, only in a controlled, safe environment?

He explores the website and gets excited. This will be money well-spent, he says to himself. Not the usual classroom BS where participants are secretly fingering their I-Phones and Blackberries.

There are hundreds of adventure training venues. To me, the best part about it is that all the drill sergeants, Rangers and special ops guys who have left military service have a way to use their skills and experience, make money, and do some good.

But how much good do they do?

The CEO has high hopes and is ready to write the check. It will be a big check - for a group that large, for a whole week, plus travel expenses. And opportunity costs - time away from the job. It will be an investment in his people. And the CEO feels good about the ROI - the hoped-for return on his investment.

In the spirit of getting real and telling the truth, I'm going to explain to you how this works.

In the pressure and pace of a typical workplace, when someone is challenged to do something, she doesn't pause and reflect about a principle or best practice she learned in a training course. She doesn't say, "In this situation, I usually do it this way, but I think maybe I ought to try what I learned. I know it's a more effective thing to do."

I know the CEO would like the employee to think that and do that. He wants his ROI. But what really happens is that people do what they usually do - the work habits they've ingrained during a lifetime of reinforcement. Why? Because these behavior patterns are wired in the brain cells. Not metaphorically wired - physically wired - brain cell to brain cell, synapse to synapse, in circuits that enable the behavior automatically. Whether a sport skill or a work habit, this is how behavior patterns work. These neural pathways were interconnected a long time ago by thousands of repetitions over time. Now people do what they do without thinking about it.

Training tries to change that. It tries to introduce new patterns. Training does a good job of introducing the behavior patterns. But it's incapable of ingraining them. There isn't enough time to allow for enough repetitions to grow a new neural pathway. The only way that will happen is back on the job.

A week at adventure camp does not equal six months at boot camp.

On the bright side, in every organization there are, hopefully, a few people I call life-long-learners. You can call them high-achievers or hard-chargers if you want. These people care so much about their own success and development that when they learn about something new and good, they obsessively make themselves apply it in the workplace. Even though it feels strange at first, they persist, because they believe in what they were taught. Weeks later, the new behavior doesn't feel so strange. It starts to get easier. Months later, if they persist, the new pattern may be practically automatic.

You gotta love these people!

If you want lasting behavior change, once formal training is over, the real learning has to begin. The problem is, over 90% of the workforce doesn't have the level of professionalism and commitment it takes to train themselves like this. And the organization has no developmental follow-through program and support system in place to coach and encourage everyone over the long haul. Without months of consistent reinforcement, the neurons won't interconnect and the skills won't be ingrained.

It's kind of like paying for a big wedding. It's a unique experience, and everybody has a lot of fun. It's all about coming together and celebrating significant relationships.

But the bottom line is that it's just an event. Nothing magical happens that will have a long-term impact on the people involved. When people return to the real world, the day-to-day grind takes over. It all comes back to who these people are - their character and the skills they bring to the daily challenges. And neither the wedding nor the ropes course is the kind of experience that can change any of that.

So if your goal is to have a big party, then pay for the party. If your goal is to reward the folks with a fun week at the adventure training camp, then write the check. Put your teams on the obstacle course, send them them down the zip line, blind-fold them and make them walk the high plank, and teach them how to tie knots. Make them do things together when they're tired and afraid. Sit around the campfire and talk about it afterward.

Six months after their week-long experience, that flag may still be up on the wall and they may still chuckle when they chant the cool team chant. The CEO will have his video, and he can show it in meetings from time to time.

But the brain cells will not have had the months of reinforcement it takes to rewire new behavior patterns. Their people skills will not have improved. Who they are will not have changed. The relationship issues will not have been resolved.

The guy who writes the checks will not realize his hoped-for ROI. I guarantee it.

Behavior change doesn't work that way.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .

1 comment:

Sean said...

I completely agree. If you want to master a new skill, do it 100 times. You'll be amazed how good you get.

When I was in college I took up painting. My first 10 paintings were horrible-- like a kindergartener with finger paints. The second 10 were not much better. But after a year when I had my 100th painting, everyone around was pretty impressed and wondered how I learned to paint so well!