There are several useful techniques for teaching professional skills. Some techniques are better than others depending on the nature of the skill, how it’ll be employed, and how social it is in execution. Inculcation – learning through doing – is sometimes the best method for ensuring that people remember what they’ve been taught.
I am not a man of sophisticated taste. I accept this. Unfortunately, ‘fitting in’ with sophisticated people was a required professional skill for me back during my consulting days. I’d recently separated from the Army, and suddenly I was expected to hobnob with wealthy clients while rocking a business suit as an essential element of delivering expensive business services. When I started, I had zero idea how any of the trappings of a ‘modern business sophisticate’ were supposed to look or sound. I knew soldiering fairly well, technology reasonably well, and cocktail party schmoozing not at all. For months after I’d transition, I felt like I’d passed through Lewis Carrol’s rabbit hole and wound up in Wharton instead of Wonderland.
Fortunately, I was able to work for and with some ‘gentlemen of refinement’ early on. I paid very close attention to the outward manifestation of their tastes in luxury cars, expensive watches, bespoke suits, and wine. I learned how to recognize the components of a ‘high-faluting’ lifestyle, even if none of it came naturally to me. I had to work hard at emulating the clues I observed. The thing is, I only ever got just good enough at camouflaging myself to blend in as an unimportant background character. I didn’t understand (and mostly still don’t) why my bosses did what they did. They never deigned to explain anything, so I could never be sure whether or not I was copying the right aspects of their culture.
That’s to be expected, though. This isn’t about instinct; no one is born knowing professional skills. Professional skills have to be learned, through formal instruction, observation and emulation, or inculcation (that is, learning through doing). I took the middle approach – watching my bosses and imitating them as best I could. It wasn’t easy. Watching without being able to differentiate between the deliberate and the incidental was maddening. I’d much rather have attended a formal course on the matter. Unfortunately, none was available.
That frustrating experience stuck with me. In time, I decided that the best way to pick up new professional skills is to have a mentor who can subtly teach through hands-on experience while coaching on the academics, applications, and best-practices of it. I needed just enough instruction to get started, and then have the blanks get filled in through a combination of personal experimentation and contextual explanation. Preferably, being mentored by a teacher who could point out the factors that I was seeing but clearly didn’t understand.
Half of all learning involves knowing where to look. The other half requires understanding what in blazes you’re looking at.
The military does this exceptionally well thanks to an approach that marries a minimum amount of instruction with maximum coaching during practice. Most of the coaching actually comes from those squaddies who are quickest to pick up on the skill. The thing is, this isn’t a solely military practice. Your mates and siblings used the exact same techniques on you while you were growing up. Think about it … You wanted to learn how to play a game, understand a piece of media, or get away with goofy stunts in class. Odds are, an older kid explained just enough to get you started. Then everyone took turns trying it out until – through feedback and experience – they finally ‘got’ it … and started teaching others in turn.
This came up in discussion with a mate of mine recently. My buddy Raul  wanted advice on how to deliver a strong table-top exercise for his Incident Response team. I read through his script and gave him feedback. One crucial subject that we discussed was the need to let his training play out naturally. Don’t, I said, tell your participants your objectives. The moment that you give your ‘players’ a list of victory conditions, they’ll game the event to ensure that they ‘win.’
See, the primary objective of a table top exercise is to ensure that all the key stakeholders are properly trained on how to follow their processes. A huge part of conducting the exercise is to identify broken or suboptimal processes, as well as to identify who in the event doesn’t know their own process(es). Put another way, the exercise coordinator needs to find out who in the group isn’t fully qualified on their required tasks. The only way to learn this is to let the process steps play out without letting on that anyone is deviating from the required standard. Define the process that needs to be run, and then allow each ‘player’ to execute their part the way that they think it ought to be performed. When someone fouls part of the process, odds are good that their peers will be swift to correct them. The feedback might sting, but it’ll definitely be remembered.
I offered Raul a practical example … one that comes from a time-honoured military tradition. Back when I was in basic training (and, later on, in the officer cadet corps), we’d take part in dozens of infantry patrols to learn how to function as a coordinated squad or platoon. In those days before the ‘Forever War,’ us Cold Warriors used 1960s vintage A.L.I.C.E. gear  for our belt kit and rucksacks. The old ‘ALICE Medium’ ruck was a canvas blob. The base bag was rarely issued with its optional aluminium frame. Think of it as a formless laundry sack with excess pockets and way too many dangling straps.
It’s the one on the right. The un-balanceable, overly complicated, uncomfortable, and smug little assembly of canvas and spite.
We’d almost always go on patrol carrying a poncho, a chemical protection suit, a spare uniform, extra dry socks, and a few ration packs in each ruck. Maybe an extra canteen. On long marches, we’d also carry a foam sleeping pad and a big, bulky sleeping bag. Even with a light load, it was always enough weight and bulk to make your ruck cumbersome and uncomfortable.
Our instructors taught us in Basic that we were to loosen the shoulder straps on our ALICE rucks in order to fit them on over our belt kit, and then to cinch the straps tight so that our ruck rode up on our shoulder blades. They warned us once to never wear the ruck low over our hips or lower back; they didn’t tell us why. That was by design. ‘Minimum instruction.’
Once on patrol, we’d be put through the normal routine of infantry life: sprinting, diving prone, crawling to cover, and so on. In every squad, there was at least one soldier (usually several) who ignored the cadre’s instructions and wore their ruck low. Always. We all tried it at one time or other. Everyone thought they knew better … right up until the moment when they tried to push up from prone to dash to cover and the ruck’s momentum sent their *#&$ dangling rucksack spinning sideways. Most of the time, this shift in centre-of-mass threw the fool so badly off-balance that they went tumbling back to the ground like a clumsy drunken ice skater. That was when someone nearby – either a member of the training cadre or a peer – advised the sore-and-humiliated squaddie to cinch up their bloody shoulder straps.
We all learned the hard way, and it stuck – more so because we’d embarrassed ourselves in front of our peers. Some soldiers learned faster than others, whether due to skill, insight, or dumb luck. Other soldiers took far too long to get the message. This was fine … the soldiers who clued in the fastest became supplemental eyes, ears, and mouths for the training cadre. In short order, we went from a large, unruly mob of clueless trainees to a self-correcting, united body of trained professionals, largely by sharply monitoring and instantly correcting one another.
Some civilians are intimidated by the military’s culture of direct candour. It can be disconcerting to have someone cut directly to the heart of a problem without regard to niceties or trampled feelings. Part of transitioning from uniforms to suits involves learning how to deliver criticism with finesse rather than force.
This, I told Raul, is one of the best ways to shake down a cross-disciplinary processes like ‘Incident Response.’ Seriously.
For clarity, a table top exercise is not intended to be training. Everyone involved in the exercise is expected to already know (and to be proficient in) their respective process elements. The ‘exercise’ is a quality control check; a shakedown to confirm that all of the key stakeholders are qualified to perform their respective tasks. Therefore, the exercise lead shouldn’t be trying to teach the process. Instead, they set up the scenario, offer prompts to see how people react, and the watch. The exercise lead allows each participant to execute their portion of the overall process the way that they believe it ought to run.
That’s where the self-correction comes into play. When someone inevitably goofs their part – through ignorance, misunderstanding, miscommunication, or an incompatible subprocess design – their peers will immediately call them out on it. Often times, the more seasoned process owners will lend their expertise and tribal knowledge to get the embarrassed goof back on track. Everyone learns from everyone else … by doing it under controlled, safe, training conditions. Minimum instruction, with maximized retention.
It’s just like tripping over your own feet because you wore your rucksack too low and too loose: once you’ve embarrassed yourself in a group table top exercise, you’re determined to never let it happen again. Sounds crazy, I know. Sometimes those lessons-learned in the military really do help out in the boardroom.
 A pseudonym.
 A.L.I.C.E. stood for “All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment.”
POC is Keil Hubert, email@example.com
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.
Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.