Officers Used to Learn from Trial and Error in Training Their Units

(p. 156) In the army, wartime experience is considered the best possible teacher, at least for those who survive the first weeks. Wong found another good one–the practice junior officers get while training their units. The decisions these officers have to make as teachers help develop the capacity for the judgment they will need on the battlefield. But Wong discovered that in the 1980s, the army had begun to restructure training in ways that had the opposite results.
Traditionally, company commanders had the opportunity to plan, (p. 157) execute, and assess the training they gave their units. “Innovation,” Wong explained, “develops when an officer is given a minimal number of parameters (e.g., task, condition, and standards) and the requisite time to plan and execute the training. Giving the commanders time to create their own training develops confidence in operating within the boundaries of a higher commander’s intent without constant supervision.” The junior officers develop practical wisdom through their teaching of trainees, but only if their teaching allows them discretion and flexibility. Just as psychologist Karl Weick found studying firefighters, experience applying a limited number of guidelines teaches soldiers how to improvise in dangerous situations.
Wong’s research showed that the responsibility for training at the company level was being taken away from junior officers. First, the time they needed was being eaten away by “cascading requirements” placed on company commanders from above. There was, Wong explained, such a “rush by higher headquarters to incorporate every good idea into training” that “the total number of training days required by all mandatory training directives literally exceeds the number of training days available to company commanders. Company commanders somehow have to fit 297 days of mandatory requirements into 256 available training days.” On top of this, there were administrative requirements to track data on as many as 125 items, including sexual responsibility training, family care packets, community volunteer hours, and even soldiers who had vehicles with Firestone tires.
Second, headquarters increasingly dictated what would be trained and how it would be trained, essentially requiring commanders “to follow a script.” Commanders lost the opportunity to analyze their units’ weaknesses and plan the training accordingly. Worse, headquarters took away the “assessment function” from battalion commanders. Certifying units as “ready” was now done from the top.
The learning through trial and error that taught officers how to improvise, Wong found, happens when officers try to plan an action, (p. 158) then actually execute it and reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Officers who did not have to adhere to strict training protocols were in an excellent position to learn because they could immediately see results, make adjustments, and assess how well their training regimens were working. And most important, it was this kind of experience that taught the commanders how to improvise, which helped them learn to be flexible, adaptive, and creative on the battlefield. Wong was concerned about changes in the training program because they squeezed out these learning experiences; they prevented officers from experiencing the wisdom-nurturing cycle of planning, executing the plan, assessing what worked and didn’t, reevaluating the original plan, and trying again.

Source:
Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.
(Note: italics in original.)

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