Experience is the best teacher. Or is it?

Experience can lead us to take mental shortcuts that result in making bad decisions. This happens when all our experience leads us to discount certain factors that, if changed, make the whole situation different from what we have experienced. The Challenger Space Shuttle and Grenfell Tower in London are examples that come to mind.

With Challenger, the cooler temperatures in the days preceding the launch were factors unaccounted for in prior Space Shuttle launches.

With Grenfell Tower, the combustible cladding on the building was a factor unaccounted for in prior experience with residential highrise fires.

Experience truly is the best teacher when it comes to making the right decisions promptly. Anyone can make excellent decisions given unlimited time, but nobody in an emergency or urgent situation of any kind has unlimited time. Time is always a factor.

As General Patton said, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

Experience is the bridge between a perfect decision made too late to be useful, and a good decision made within the time available.

We and our teams need the ability to make good decisions, even excellent decisions, promptly. How do we do that while avoiding the pitfall of building mental tunnel vision?

You Will Fight the Way You Train

We hear the phrase, “Train the way you want to fight, and you will fight the way you train.” More accurately, given how our psychology and physiology works, train the way you want to fight because you will fight the way you train. This applies to the fields of emergency management, crisis management, business continuity, and every endeavor where decisive and effective response is needed.

When we are under physical or psychological stress, we will do what we have practiced.

We first need to explore the idea of an “optimal” decision.

There is an optimal decision from the perspective of a disinterested, third-party removed from the situation with the benefit of all available information. This is what “Monday-morning quarterbacks” or “armchair generals” do after the fact when critiquing what others have done.

When we are in a situation that demands a decision that isn’t an option. We don’t have full information and knowing we are under time pressure with serious consequences hanging in the balance changes the way our brains and bodies work.

Under time pressure, which is always present for real-world decisions in the middle of an evolving situation, our minds will not search out the entire space of available options. Our minds will “satisfice”, or choose a “good enough” solution, based on prior experience modified by factors under consideration.

Experience lets us limit the mental search space for a solution. That is what expertise allows a seasoned individual to make good decisions faster than a novice. Experience points you in the right general direction and prompts you to ask the important questions right away. A novice is slower because he or she doesn’t know what avenues are not worth exploring. A novice also doesn’t know what are the key questions to ask to confirm the best option to choose given the time and information available.

Experience lets our minds take mental shortcuts.

The problem in some situations, like with Challenger and Grenfell, is that we aren’t always aware of those shortcuts. We aren’t aware of the assumptions we make when taking those shortcuts.

Train for Surprises by Training with Surprises

Training does not have to always proceed in a linear, predictable fashion. It does not have to be A, B, then C every time. Not only does this get boring for your people and reduces the effect of the training, but it also fails to train in the ability to accommodate and respond to surprises.

We can train the ability to consider and assess more factors and to do so quickly by introducing surprises into training itself. Introduce non-linear elements that seem to come out of the blue. Introduce changes to variables that are unexpected.

This goes beyond the what-if discussions that happen as part of most tabletop exercises. For you as a trainer, for a leader, this is forcing your people to consider what their assumptions have been.

Introduce events in the training that are surprises. However, they cannot be fantasies thrown in with no logical basis. You must introduce surprises that exist because you have “tampered” with one or more factors that your people have always taken for granted.

Consider as an example martial arts sparring and mixed-martial arts, or MMA.

With practioners in a single martial arts discipline, individuals who are sparring against one another know the same skills, know the same patterns, and they expect their opponent to respond to their actions in particular ways. It is predictable. That predictability is part of the point of sparring, which cements in certain patterns of motion, patterns of perception, and patterns of thought.

Part of the appeal of MMA events for both practitioners and spectators is introducing variability. Competitors do not present one another the same patterns of motion, perception, or thought. There can be surprises for participants in a match and for the audience.

Consider as another example, using “Red Team” (or “Blue Team” depending on what country you are in) training with military and security forces. A subset of the organization uses different tactics – different patterns of motion, perception and thought – to face off against those being trained. This gives trainees experience with opponents who don’t move, think, or fight the way they do. They will receive surprises, and that is both intentional and desirable.

As a leader and as a trainer, you will need to use creativity (or the creativity of your people) to introduce surprises into the way you train and exercise.

Where the challenges you face are inanimate forces and objects, you cannot use “Red/Blue Team” or “OPFOR” elements, but you can look into and exploit the assumptions your people use.

For example with Challenger, we now know weather far from extreme can have devastating impacts on safety. Challenge the “conventional” line between significant and insignificant variables.

Likewise with Grenfell, we now know construction elements that appear to be only cosmetic can have devastating impacts on event progression. Challenge assumptions that separate “safe” from “unsafe”, “probable” from “improbable”.

Pattern Recognition

The human brain has powerful pattern recognition abilities. It is why you can read a document rife with spelling mistakes and still understand exactly what the writer meant. It is why you can look at a scene and immediately surmise what happened – that the cat knocked over the vase, the child did exactly what you told him not to do, or which driver made a bad move that caused the collision on the road. Your mind knows how to link the dots presented to it because you’ve seen those dots and patterns before.

When we train ourselves and our people, we need to take advantage of that tremendous strength.

Yet we also want to avoid mental tunnel vision. We need to keep introducing “new dots in the pattern” in our training. Every time you see and understand a new pattern, new options open up, and remain open, in your thinking. You can quickly assess – or ask and assess – another factor that can have a tremendous impact on the outcome.

Will this slow you down? During your training, yes it will, at least initially. Either that or it will lead you and your people to make mistakes. That is intentional. We want to make those mistakes – overlook those factors, make those wrong assumptions – in training and exercises, not in our responses to real events.

Stress Inoculation

We will only introduce the concept of stress inoculation here.

The presence or absence of experience and the ability to look for and accommodate surprises are not the only factors we can address through intelligent training. We can also inoculate our people to stress through the training and exercises we prepare and provide.

Stress affects performance. As we increase stress, we can enhance performance. Our bodies react faster and stronger, our senses and our minds are sharper. But if we keep increasing stress, our physical and mental performance first degrades and then falls apart. The zone in which our stress enhances our abilities can be very narrow.

The intentional and intelligent application of stress during training and exercise – done so in escalating & progressive fashion – extends that zone of enhanced performance. It delays the onset of degradation.

Uncertainty and surprises are a real form of stress. When we introduce surprises into training, and when participants know there are surprises waiting for them, that is a form of intentional stress. As our people get used to looking for and either avoiding or responding effectively to surprises, they experience less stress and are better able to perform under the stress of the unknown.

Get To It

We frequently overlook the difference between training and education because of the terminology we use.

Education imparts knowledge. Knowledge may translate into ability and performance, but it is not a deterministic, guaranteed link between knowledge and performance.

Training develops and enhances skills, abilities, and performance beyond the training environment. Knowledge may be part of how this training accomplishes its objectives. However, once we move away from beginning steps into the realm of advanced practice, we are far more often talking about experiential learning and not just conceptual learning.

The shortfalls in the Challenger and Grenfell Tower situations had nothing to do with knowledge. Engineers at NASA knew what would happen to o-rings in low temperatures. Firefighters arriving at Grenfell Tower knew how fire behaves and how different materials respond.

The shortfalls were untested assumptions that real world or in exercise experience had yet to reveal. These shortcuts born of experience had remained unexamined.

Our aim in training is for our people to respond effectively to emergencies, crises and other urgent situations is not to eliminate the reliance upon experience. Far from it. We want to train in the ability to look for, avoid or effectively respond to surprises.

This is an ability we can develop and improve through training.

It is our responsibility as leaders and as trainers to do exactly that.

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