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Rapid Culture Change Is Possible

by Brace E. Barber

Adults learn through experience. We learn behaviors through experience. This is the flagpole fact of the educational world. This flag is visible for everyone to see, and it's where educators know they need to be whether they are training hard or soft skills. Deborah Solomon Reid of Tuck School of Business strikes a bell to be heard by anyone considering this most fundamental element of adult learning. "While conceptual learning is important, the major leaps forward – these so-called 'aha!' moments when mental maps are rearranged – are most likely to happen when students encounter these theories experientially." The widespread use of experiential training in the development of the soft skills of leadership and teamwork can transform individuals and your organization.

The question is, "What transformation do you want?" What end state do you envision for your organization, and what behavioral alignment must take place in your employees before that vision can be realized? The answer to that question often traverses the corporate culture. For instance, the characteristics necessary for an agile and responsive company, one of the strategic focuses highlighted by IBM in their 2004 CEO survey, require employees who value agility and responsiveness. Properly guided experiential training can create fertile conditions for a rapid adjustment in corporate culture, no matter the direction you wish to go. Whether it is agility and responsiveness, sustainability, or lean systems you wish to ingrain, it can be done. However, to reap the greatest rewards you must make two commitments.

First, you must embrace the experiential training model for its ability to quickly influence behavior. Second, because everyone has a role in corporate culture you must commit to training nearly everyone. I acknowledge that this is a tremendous distance to go for most companies. You will see that there are many powerful uses for experiential training that will enhance your company's performance without a wholesale assault on your corporate culture. Any significant impact on your leadership core should be embraced. However, if you are looking for that sweeping modification, you need to plan and resource for results. Bring a ladder tall enough to at least reach the lowest branches.

Changing values for maintainable strategic initiatives

Frances Hesselbein said, "Soft skills are now hard", and she is right. In so many strategic initiatives, particularly in sustainability and lean systems, we must get into the person's brain and adjust their value system. That's not easy. Experiential training and immersion training as I'll define here require a thoughtful approach by leaders determined to make improvements and dedicate the necessary resources to do so.

When I refer to experiential training, I mean a guided experience intended to teach specific lessons. Immersion training is an extended use of experiential training where no other focus is allowed. Immersion training (Table 1) uses all available time allotted for the achievement of the intended results. The understanding is that the entire day is a training environment. There are no distractive devices that connect the students to work or home, and there is no happy hour or tee time. No matter the number of days, and more than one is preferable; the objectives of the course have the uninterrupted attention of the students.

Table 1. Immersion training is characterized by:

Experience based
(Table 2, 2a)
Students are involved; physically and emotionally. Not in role-playing but with actual responsibility within the scenario. Their decisions have consequences.
Distraction free
For the duration of the training, there are no connections, such as cell phone, pager, laptop, to non-scenario, outside responsibilities.
Multiple days
More time for repetition of scenarios, which aids in internalization of intended lessons. Facilitates application of lessons in real life.
Extended work hours
More time for repetition of scenarios, which aids in internalization of intended lessons. Facilitates application of lessons in real life.
Narrow focus
Allows for frequent reoccurrence, reinforcement and internalization of intended lessons. Facilitates application of lessons in real life.
Reflection
Distraction free environment allows for downtime assimilation of lessons. Facilitates application of lessons in real life.

Regardless of the variables chosen for the realignment of your corporate culture, teamwork, leadership and communication must be the constants. When those components are taken out, all other initiatives suffer. In the IBM 2004 CEO survey, they "recognize that it is the skills of their people and their capacity for change and leadership that will ultimately determine the outcome".

Bob Doppelt, a leading researcher on sustainability, writes, "Leading organizations are blessed with – or take explicit steps to develop – exemplary leadership at the top and throughout the enterprise. It is not possible to initiate or sustain the tremendous transformation required to become more sustainable without exceptional leadership."

Warren Bennis put it this way, "Without leaders who can attract and retain talent, manage knowledge, and unblock people's capacity to adapt and innovate, an organization's future is in jeopardy."

If you don't have leadership, you will lose the capability to fully exploit the preparedness for the new culture that this training makes possible. You can spend all of your training time and effort on sustainability or agility, and your company will become very smart on these subjects. You can use experiential training to make the lessons real, but if you don't have an expansive, dedicated and perseverant leadership foundation, you will fail.

One of the key advantages you have by making the commitment to a broad immersion campaign is that through the process, you will not only steer your corporate culture, but you will also enhance every aspect of your ability for success by creating a prevailing culture of leadership. Fortunately, leadership principles are nearly universal. The same principles that are used to successfully lead a project team are used to lead a sales organization or a tech staff. The better those principles are incorporated into the operating habits of your people, the more advantage you will have.

In addition to the critical leadership aspect of the training, you will customize your training to include those areas you want most understood and valued. A narrow focus is more effective, and I recommend only one or two. Fortunately, when it comes to cultural issues a short list should be more than sufficient. You are in the process of turning an ocean liner with momentum, so the unsettling notion of a realigning of company values must be prepared for by an extraordinary event. Doppelt's first intervention for creating a sustainable organization deals with change. "Disrupting an organization's controlling mental model is the first – and most important – step toward the development of new ways of operating. Little change will occur if this step is unsuccessful.

The nature of immersion training is that it gets under your skin. It's disruptive because in order to align the training with how adults learn best, people have to be allowed to fall down, be uncomfortable, challenged, stressed and sometimes broken. This seems to go against our desire to protect people's self-esteem. Understand that true self-esteem and confidence comes from achievement not coddling. One of the greatest things we as leaders can do to build up the capacity of our people is to allow them the chance for achievement.

Immersion training allows for the complete involvement of each of the participants at every step, whether a leader or follower. It allows for the immediate illumination of the relationship between actions and consequences. It provides the ability to learn how to do things better through educated analysis and experimentation. It allows the consequences of mistakes to be experienced in a training environment and not in the office environment, where they would be much more costly. It compresses the on-the-job learning cycle from months and years down to a number of days. It is an experience that aids in the internalization of positive practices of teamwork, leadership, communication and the variables you choose.

Begin and end properly

At the beginning and end of this visceral, emotional experience is the critical pieces of instruction and analysis. The format of the experience is of ultimate importance, but in order to keep it from wastefully spilling out of the ends, the classroom time is the cinch.

The introduction is where the primary focuses are defined. It is where their meaning and importance are explained. Next, the students get to actually lead and follow in their experiential environment. They get to make decisions that have consequences. They get to feel the stress of having eyes and expectations on them, and they get to learn what it means to make a decision and stand by it. Everyone gets to operate as a team and learn to depend on each other towards the accomplishment of an objective.

The cinch at the end is when together they get to participate in the important closure of an after action review, or a post-mortem. They get to analyze their experience with respect to the course focuses, and create better ways to perform in the future. The experience really excels when attention is given to building bridges between the lessons learned and the student's workplace and life.

David Kolb explains in his book Experiential Learning that a cycle of learning exists. It is a good exercise to place our guided experience onto his well-used framework. We provide the opportunity for what he calls abstract conceptualization when we make the introduction of our focus subjects. Our students take these new concepts and use their time as a leader to actively experiment with their implementation as they have a concrete experience. Finally, they have the opportunity to perform reflective observation. It is in this reflective period that we derive lessons learned and build bridges to the workplace and life.

In my book, No Excuse Leadership, I sadly acknowledge that after the nine-week immersion training that is U.S. Army Ranger School, some people fail in life and in work. "The reason is simple – they failed to take advantage of at least two opportunities provided by the school. They either did not think about what there was to learn or didn't take action on the lessons they did learn." For various reasons, ranger school does not have a mechanism for such feedback and it is the individual's responsibility to take that extra step. Fortunately for us, corporate immersion training can use a much shorter period of time utilizing extensive feedback and achieve remarkable behavioral results.

The power of rapid repetition

The compression of time for behavioral changes is because the same leadership patterns that exist in the workplace are mimicked in the training, only they are rapid and clear. In the unguided and unanalyzed workplace, decisions are made, yet the consequences of those decisions are days or months in the future and are rarely completely seen or understood. Certainly, the interpersonal communication aspects of impressions, perceptions and clarity are never addressed. Compress this pattern and repeat it multiple times in a matter of days in a guided environment where the decision-consequence link is clear, and you will rapidly change behaviors.

After traveling the cycle once, it would be nice to stop there and pat each other on the back, but in immersion training, there is always more to do to. There is a superposition achieved by moving immediately into another round of introduction, experience, analysis and bridging; then another and then another, etc. This training gets leaders leading; making mistakes, evaluating decisions, and doing it again in rapid succession.

This superposition of progress was logged by a university study performed on the Leading Concepts' Ranger TLC (teamwork, leadership, communication) Experience, a four-day, 80 hour training course. It showed consistent improvement in the areas of trust in peers, group awareness, group effectiveness (cohesion), group bonding and interpersonal communications. Although those were the only areas considered in the study, the lessons can be much farther ranging. In addition to the focus areas selected for instruction, a recent Entrepreneur Magazine article showed how immersion training could inspire people. "Many enter leadership training believing their most valuable lessons will be in the areas of policies and procedures, but they come away with more fundamental insights that are ultimately more valuable." The article went on to say that, "owners who rated their experiences most highly were those who detached themselves the most."

Those who are detached the most and who have no outside distractions have the greatest opportunity to develop a clear picture of what the teaching and experience mean to them. They have time to reflect, not only during the analysis and bridge period, but during their downtime also. It is that hidden after-hours time that can lock the principles and values into a person's decision cycle. Facilitation of the learning of the intended message as clearly and deeply as possible is the beginning of the future, and it is another product of experiential training that less-involved methods cannot match.

Have your message received clearly

One of the reasons there is so little progress on the soft-skills despite mountains of writing, speaking and training, is because the teachers are writing on a crowded blackboard of the student's education. The distortion of writing with a big piece of chalk in the small, open places of the blackboard, or in giant letters over existing writing, obstructs even the understanding of the intended lessons. If proper understanding is never achieved then the persistence needed to take a lesson and create a habit cannot start.

Compounding the difficulty of implementation of new behaviors is the fact that the work environment, where these behaviors are intended to work, is not a guided experience. There is a mash of activities that don't lend themselves to 8-1/2 x 11 margins. If we get to the point of attempted application, we see mutated lessons, adapted by a person in a job where the cause and effect of leadership are rarely evident. The results are mutated and misattributed if they are recognized at all. This approach leaves everyone shrugging their shoulders in frustration.

Some would rightly say that it is precisely a person's background, education and work experience that make it possible for them to learn new materials quickly. They are able to link new information with existing experience to create new understandings. That is completely accurate, and extremely valid in a hard skill. The problem this encounters in the soft-skill environment is that people's existing leadership experience, if they have any, is trial and error and seldom firmly planted in accurate guiding principles. Their experience then becomes the confusing scribbling on the blackboard.

The way to overcome the whiteout conditions of the student's education is to find their clean blackboard. You must have a place where a clear message can be communicated, and in a method that will change behaviors beyond the last slide.

The immersion method gives you a clean blackboard for nearly everyone in your company. In the top left hand corner of the board write "Guided Leadership Experience." (Table 2) Underneath that, write, "Actual Leadership Experience". For the most efficient progress, these two must go together. Actual experience is often called on-the-job experience, the preponderance of which is unguided. Guided experience is what we call professional development. To add to my definition of experiential training, it starts beyond books, speeches and seminars at a level where a person is making leadership decisions that will have consequences.

Table 2. Guided Experience is characterized by:

Focus subject instruction
Education on focus subjects. (Teamwork, Leadership, Communication)
Free-play scenarios
Leaders and followers experience real stresses of teamwork and the consequences of their actions with as few controls as possible.
After action reviews
Discovery, structured around focus subjects, by students of lessons learned and discussion of potential improvements.

Table 2a. Guided Experience is augmented by:

Bridge building
Education on focus subjects. (Teamwork, Leadership, Communication)
Post training follow-up
Leaders and followers experience real stresses of teamwork and the consequences of their actions with as few controls as possible.

Guided leadership experience is nearly non-existent. To be fair, most of the top business schools have incorporated experiential training and role-playing into their curriculum. Unfortunately, the guided nature of the experience does not have a foundation of actual experience on which to build. In an informal survey of one of the top business schools, only 10-15% of the student body had ever had leadership responsibility for other people prior to enrollment.

Harvard Business School professor Linda A. Hill in her book, Becoming a Manager warns, "Newly minted MBAs who have never had subordinates reporting to them before may take jobs in which they will have considerable people management responsibilities, with little sense of the risk in doing so."

This leadership risk can be mitigated, not only for the new MBA, but also for everyone – EVERYONE. Leadership is risky. Arranged properly, it is the leader's leather chair that is on the line for consequences of decisions made. By giving the person the best possible chance for success, the risk of monetary, morale and self-esteem losses are all mitigated. The best chance for success is achieved when leaders at all levels are allowed the privilege of testing and developing their leadership skills in non-job threatening, guided environments.

Conclusion

Write your message on the clean blackboard of guided leadership experience and purposefully develop your company's leadership core. Immersion training offers the best way to communicate a clear message that will quickly change people's behaviors. The relatively dramatic nature of the training also prepares people for receptivity to new information that can in turn transform your corporate culture – no matter what you want it to be.

Individuals are the building blocks of teams, of companies, and of corporate cultures. The good news is that you do have the ability to influence and build individuals in a rapid fashion. You have to remain dedicated to the ideal and with a firm hold on the flagpole of experiential training.

Copyright © Brace E. Barber

About the Author

Brace E. Barber works extensively in the field of immersion soft-skill training. His partnership with Leading Concepts, Inc. has allowed for the expansion of this extraordinary levssel of experiential training. He is the author of the book No Excuse Leadership. http://www.noexcuseleadership.com J. Wiley and Sons Publishing. To learn more about how immersion team building and leadership training can help you visit: http://www.leadingconcepts.com

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