A Punch to the Mouth: What’s the Worst that Could Happen?

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As learning professionals, we’re all familiar with the likes of Kirkpatrick and Blooms when it comes to assessment, application, and objectives. Learning and development is all about being able to deliver information in an engaging and efficient way that can be measured and reported on to prove a return on the company’s investment in learning. That’s the ultimate goal, right? Not quite.

Learning and development is more than just meeting an objective to sell more widgets or troubleshoot a problem at a faster pace. Learning and development is about changing behavior to match what the company expects. The problem is that what the company expects isn’t always the way things work. Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” and I believe that to be one of the most accurate statements I’ve ever heard.

So, that begs the question – how can we punch our learners in the mouth more often? By that, I mean, how can we make learning more impactful in order to prepare learners to think critically about a problem rather than teaching them to handle every situation the same way. A study conducted by the Delft University of Technology demonstrates that learning and development is typically constructed in a way that makes it safe for the learner to pass or fail. There is usually content, knowledge checks, more content, and a final assessment. In the case of software training, there’s often a simulation that takes a user down a specifically planned path deemed the “best practice” method for accomplishing a task. Beyond that, there’s very little based on real-world application.

For example, my main focus in the learning and development world is on sales training, but this concept can be applied across disciplines. When I set out to test a sales person’s knowledge of a product, I employ a technique known as video role play. It’s a system by which a scenario is presented to the learner and he or she is asked to respond using a video of himself or herself responding to the scenario whether it be a value pitch, handling objections, or any other soft skill worth assessing. These videos are graded by managers or subject matter experts using a defined set of criteria given to the learner up front. The same goes for software simulations – ask your learner to perform a system-based task and score their clicks as they walk through the system.

What we’re testing is whether the learner is able to regurgitate facts or follow directions – robots can do these things, especially as AI continues to evolve. What we need to be testing our learners on is their ability to think critically in the moment of need – we need to punch them in the mouth.

In a sales pitch, how do you handle a situation where you walk into a customer’s office and he or she is angry about something and threatening to cancel your product or service? What happens to your planned agenda for that meeting? On the software side, what happens when you troubleshoot an issue, things aren’t responding as you expect, and you have an unhappy customer on the other end of the line? It’s those types of situations on which we need to be testing our learners. We can teach them the best practice, but we need to prepare them for the worst-case scenario.

By preparing our learners for the worst-case scenario, we’re giving them the knowledge of what should happen while asking them to think outside the box to problem solve. Learning and development isn’t about building robots to complete the same task over and over again. Learning and development is about teaching people to think and act like people, teaching them to respond in the moment and take charge of a situation. The healthcare industry is one that routinely requires its staff to take part in “worst-case scenario” training – and I, for one, am glad they do so. Think about it – when an ambulance comes whirring into the emergency lane at a hospital with a patient only moments away from taking his or her last breath, there’s no time to second guess what you’re doing or look something up in a reference manual. Nurses have to react and be able to problem solve in the moment – that’s the vital importance of this type of training.

There will certainly be situations that arise where your learners are in over their head, and that’s something that

needs to be taught as well – where’s the ripcord? If you can put your learners into a pressure-cooker situation and press them until they break, then they will learn their limits and know when to ask for help. If they don’t learn to ask for help, then they will ultimately continue to fail – demonstrating an inability to learn. This is the same reasoning that puts pilots through crash simulations. What would you do if the plane was going down and 200 or more lives depended on your ability to think critically and solve a problem? Fortunately, not many of us are in that situation, but the point remains the same. No two situations will ever be the same, and it is impossible to train for every scenario. However, the more you prepare your learners to handle the worst-case scenario, the more prepared they will be to think outside the box, solve problems for your customers, and provide a better experience for everyone involved. It’s like the old saying goes – what’s the worst that could happen?