One of the worst possible reviews that training content can receive is “what was the point of all this?” That’s a damning indictment, make no mistake. It’s worse, I believe, than accusations that the training is “too long,” “too complex,” or even “boring.” Those are mostly subjective complaints. Being asked what the bloody point of a course was is objective evidence of failure: your student(s) know that they did something but can’t understand why or how they might apply what they just did. Wasted time and effort.
Such criticism doesn’t necessarily mean that your training had no inherent value; it does, however, indicate that your students can’t use that value because they ended the event lacking one or more critical pieces of context. A trainer who fails to explain the point of the lesson effectively ruins the experience. I’ve seen this happen thanks to clumsy framing and from assumptions that the value and/or application of the training would be self-evident.
To illustrate this problem, let me share a story from my Army days. First, because it’s directly relevant, but also because it’s stupid. Also, I got in tons of trouble which makes it funny to me.
This happened a few years before the Soviet Union collapsed. America was still obsessed with (and terrified of) the looming threat of World War III. I’d just joined the Army and shipped off to Basic Combat Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. It was a scorching summer. I was a skinny seventeen-year-old dork trying (and failing) to lurk under the drill sergeants’ radar.
We were about a third of our way through our cycle when the drill sergeants marched us to Basic Rifle Marksmanship. This block made intuitive sense to us recruits: we were soldiers preparing to fight the gargantuan Soviet hoard in Germany. Logically, we’d need to know how to shoot while Ivan steamrolled us. The better we shot, the longer we’d stay alive. That didn’t need explaining.
Our BRM training was somewhat ineffective because our M-16A1 rifles were seriously worn out. I’d only ever handled a rifle once in my life prior to Basic and even I could tell that these elderly shooting irons had been banged on rocks by legions of clumsy goofs like me for decades. They were dinged, gouged, and rattled like a Trabant at a demolition derby.
After much consternation, we did eventually manage to pass BRM with minimum passing scores but it was a close-run thing.  The old rifles shot like muskets. Learning how to use the sights was significantly less important to hitting one’s target than was watching where the puffs of a missed shot appeared and applying “Kentucky windage” to the next shot. Oh, well.
Still, BRM essentials made sense to us. We dutifully learned how to load, fire, clear jams in, unload, and clean our standard duty rifle. Presumably, the rifles we’d eventually be issued “back home” for WW3 would be up to snuff. Hopefully. Not that it would help much in the face of a million tanks, but “hope” had never really been a viable strategy for the coming fight.
Anyway. Flash-forward a few weeks: we’d just returned to barracks from “bivouac.” We’d survived a week of large-scale attack and defence drills out in the woods. “Assault lanes,” “Final Protective Fire” drills, and crawling up a simulated beach under barbed wire whilst machine gunners fired live rounds over our heads and similar “confidence building immersive experiences.” We were exhausted and eager to turn in our field gear. Back to the Supply Building went the shelter halfs, sleeping bags, entrenching tools, aaaaaaaaaand not our bloody rifles. After a week of non-stop day and night war games, our rifles were filthy.
No problem, though! We knew how to sort this from the BRM block. Every evening following our trips to the ranges, our drill sergeants required us to strip down and clean our rifles until the armourer accepted them. All it took was a barrel of industrial solvent, a cleaning kit, some rags, bags full of disposable cotton patches, and gallons of the Army’s favourite liquid “Cleaner, Lubricant, and Preservative” (or “CLP”). Several hours of painstaking labour later and most everyone could turn an acceptably clean weapon back in to the armourer. We had this.
Except … no. Not this time. First and foremost, we’d been firing blanks most of the time. Even though Mr. Stoner had designed the original AR-15 to be a “self-cleaning” rifle, the U.S. Government had always been too cheap to procure the high-quality ammunition that would’ve made that possible. Cheap ammo was one of the major contributing factors in making Vietnam-era rifles clog up like a Texan’s arteries. We’d been firing a lot of the cheap stuff. Worse, we’d been firing a lot of blanks, too – cartridges with real gunpowder but no bullet – and those things are filthy. Then there was all the dust and mud and what-not that had to be dealt with.
Nonetheless, we had the skills. How card could it be? We got to work. We spent hours in our blazing hot barracks bays trying to knock all the carbon build-up off our barrels, bolts and receivers … only to discover after we’d started that we had exactly one bottle of CLP for the entire 40-man platoon. Not one per person but one bottle that had to be shared. Everyone got about one-and-a-half squirts of CLP … which was nowhere near enough to clear a barrel.
“It’s got to be a mistake,” our squad leader said and went to go get more CLP from the drill sergeants. He returned ten minutes later, downtrodden and red-faced from having been “dropped” for punitive push-ups. After he caught his breath, he reported that there was no more CLP to be had. We were all expected to “make do” with what we had.
That made no sense. You could drag a dry cotton patch through your barrel all day long and it would never dislodge the burned-on carbon deposits. We could waste days at it without making meaningful progress. Even the M16 manual said we needed correct supplies to do the job.
The thing was … I knew from a previous round of janitorial duty that there was a huge reserve of CLP stored right inside the barracks. I grabbed our squad leader. We trotted down to let the senior drill sergeant know the “good news.” In hindsight, this … was not smart.
The drill sergeant snapped us to attention and demanded to know why we weren’t in our bay cleaning. I told him that I knew that there was more CLP in the supply closet right outside his office. The sergeant looked at me with contempt and snarled “Shut up, Joe!” 
Being very dense, I assumed the sergeant didn’t understand me. I pointed over my shoulder at the supply closet door. “No, it’s okay sergeant. There’s a couple’a quarts of it right here …” 
The sergeant turned cardiac arrest scarlet, grimaced like he was dangerously constipated, and bellowed “SHUT UP, JOE!” Then he angrily dropped us for infinite push-ups, as was custom.
Discouraged, we spent all afternoon pretending to “clean” our rifles and they all – every one of them – failed inspection that evening. After chow, we drew them again and went back to pretend cleaning deep into the evening. They all failed inspection again. After a fitful few hour of sleep (punctuated by guard duty), we got to do it all over again the next day … Magically, the drill sergeants brought us a new bottle of CLP towards late afternoon … presumably from the aforementioned janitorial supply closet.
To this day, it isn’t clear what exactly the purpose of that was. That there was a significant stash of brand-new CLP bottles in the supply closet was never in doubt. There had always been enough. Looking back, I hypothesized several possibilities:
- An event had “fallen off” our training schedule and the drill sergeants needed to keep us grunts busy for an extra half-day, so they made our task impossible
- The drill sergeants – who had often berated us as the “worst company” they’d ever trained – wanted to inflict some sort of gruelling punishment
- The “impossible cleaning” exercise had always been a deliberate, planned, practical event designed to teach us trainees a painful lesson about ensuring we always had the correct supplies on-hand before attempting a critical task
That last option always seemed the most plausible to me, as the U.S. Army usually had large scale training down to a science. It usually wasn’t Army curriculum that failed; four times in five, training failure could be blamed on the unqualified instructors who didn’t understand how to teach the material they’d been given.
That’s why I’m reasonably sure the “post-bivouac final cleaning” exercise was always meant to be an object lesson. Training-by-inculcation in how not to clean your rifle. That made perfect sense as a crucial, life-saving lessons. If our lead drill sergeant had revealed the trick at formation after turn-in, we all would have internalized the lesson. We would have been angry, sure, but so what? We never would’ve forgotten the point and we’d live by the gospel going forward.
Thing is, that “big reveal” never happened. Instead, we had 200 squaddies grouse about how the two-day exercise had been an abusive waste of everyone’s time. Further, knowing that the supplies we’d needed had been down the hall the entire time made everyone doubt the competency of the men tasked with teaching us. It could’ve been a tremendous practical lesson; it was a total waste.
Even the richest, cleverest, most insightful training experience will fizzle if the critical meaning of the training isn’t explained to the students by the end of the event. It doesn’t matter how much the essential lessons makes sense to the course designer; if your students lack the key ideas that put the lesson into context, the core message will be lost … or corrupted. The trainer simply must be explicit about why something needs to be done a certain way for the “lesson” to make sense.
To be clear, I’m not opposed to assigning highly-difficult or nigh-impossible tasks. When done right, “futile exercises” can be tremendously useful. Sometimes, only frustration can convince people – especially very stubborn people, like squaddies and sysadmins – to follow established organisational processes. Ending a “futility exercise” with a sober discussion of whycertain things must be done in a specific way will help cement the lesson far better than a warning statement or a barked order ever will. “Because I said so” isn’t a viable teaching strategy; demonstrating your point beyond all doubt can be … provided you explain why at the end. Put another way, come clean with your people about what it was really all about. 
If you don’t … well … your people will assume that you’re an idiot and rationalize away everything they’ve just experienced. Makes it all a waste of time, money, and effort. Might also inadvertently teach some dangerously incorrect lessons that set your students up for a painful accident later on. Almost makes such training counterproductive … not that we would ever do such a thing in the high-tech, sophisticated, and logical world of global business … right?
 All except for the kid who failed Rifle qualification a staggering thirteen times in a row and was sent home in disgrace. Poor kid had to come back the next summer and take BCT all over again.
 The drill sergeants never bothered to learn our names; every soldier was called “Joe.”
 General safety tip. DO NOT DO THIS.
 I DO NOT APOLOGIZE FOR THIS JOKE. BWAH HAH HAH HAH!
Pop Culture Allusion: U.S. Army Operator’s Manual for M16, M16A1 Rifle Paperback – May 10, 2010, available for sale on Amazon.com which truly makes me wonder if I’ve gone completely insane since the end of the Cold War.