Thoughts For a Dialogue
Tim Rumsey and Boyd Watkins
An Introductory Example|
As an introduction to our dialogue concerning the merits of Challenge Arenas vs. Practice Fields, consider the following somewhat amplified situation:
Carolyn is an internal consultant for an internationally known entertainment / theme park company. She has been called in to work with a team of nine Guest Service Representatives whose team leader has characterized them as ”dysfunctional” and given a few concrete indicators:
Carolyn begins the consultation with an experiential activity called ”The River To Success.” To ”win” at this activity, people must
The team has 30 minutes to achieve the desired outcome of the activity, moving all nine members from one ”river bank” to the ”far bank.”
Carolyn's particular group goes to work on ”The River To Success” and the results are somewhat predictable:
In short, they behave just as they do in real world situations. At the end of 30 minutes, the team has clearly not achieved the desired outcome and has managed to create an unpleasant, uncomfortable, and inefficient dynamic. This dynamic is comparable to the one they create on the job.
Carolyn pulls the team together for a debrief and essentially asks them, what happened?
The response is, ”We acted just like we do every day, and we failed.”
Carolyn is a skilled facilitator, and manages to extract some critical information by posing the following questions to the team:
What bothers Carolyn, though, as the team leaves the training site, is that despite coming to a cognitive and verbal recognition of what went wrong and what needs to change in the future, the team ”practiced wrong”. Though they solved the metaphorical problem, they did not ”practice” useful planning, communication, and problem solving procedures.
This situation might be compared to a basketball player practicing foul shots using a ”dysfunctional” method, evidenced by consistent misses, for 30 minutes. At the end of that time, he and his coach sat down and talked about what he'd done, agreed it was not useful, and talked about what he should have done. The player then went home vowing to ”do it right” in the future. Instinctively we know that what the basketball player really needed to do was to go back to the foul line and ”practice right.”
The essential premise of these situations and this dialogue, therefore, is: ”What gets practiced is what gets learned.”
With that premise in mind, imagine what might have happened had Carolyn:
What differentiates this sort of facilitator intervention from Carolyn's initial approaches:
Any time learners observe, understand and practice desired behaviors, their chances of internalizing and incorporating those behaviors into future thinking and acting are greatly increased.
A consultant, like a basketball coach intent on ensuring that her team acquires proficiency in foul shooting (or in some other area), can tune her program into what we will call a ”Practice Field” -- a place where she and learners can stop in the midst of action, focus on either positive or negative behavior patterns (and their consequences), then have the learners return to the activity, practicing what they've learned in order to see if the information has been incorporated. She might, in fact, freeze the action a number of times, debriefing then moving back to practice until the participants demonstrate that they have ”gotten it”.
(Note: ”Incorporate” literally means to ”take into the body.”)
Although the ”Practice Field” approach is not unusual in sports, the performing arts, technical skills training etc., it is rarely used in the field of Experiential Education or Action Learning. In these situations it is more typical that facilitators use what we'll call ”Challenge Arenas”, wherein they gather a team in front of a set of props/resources and give them a challenge to solve. (Challenge being defined as focussing only on closing the difference between a present state where they are now - and a desired state where they want or need to be.) While both these methods are effective, it is important to understand their differences.
In a Challenge Arena, the primary goal is the achievement of the physical outcome. In this arena, much like in business when a manager declares that ”it is only the results that count”, the process of observation is unconsciously devalued and ”winning” and ”losing” acquire a narrow (albeit clear) meaning.
The facilitator in a Challenge Arena Might:
This format does tend to galvanize people in that two key components for pulling people together quickly and powerfully are present: a clearly defined goal and a clearly defined time constraint.
The typical outcome of the Challenge Arena format goes something like this:
Though the Challenge Arena model is clearly an effective assessment format that seems to be predictably successful in eliciting characteristic patterns and processes, it is less clear that it leads to changing dysfunctional behaviors or acquiring more functional behaviors for the future. In fact, an argument could be made that the Challenge Arena model actually reinforces existing patterns of behavior if you are literal to the premise that ”What gets practiced is what gets learned”.
The Challenge Arena model also creates several problems for facilitators and participants:
A Practice Field does not exclude all the characteristics of a Challenge Arena. Some common characteristics are:
Action Learning facilitators using the Challenge Arena model typically operate within a paradigm (unconsciously held) that says:
The Practice Field model challenges both these premises.
What differentiates a Practice Field from a Challenge Arena is that the consultant is not constrained to wait until the action is over to stop an activity, debrief for learning, then resume the activity. The consultant is, in fact, more directive and prescriptive. After debriefing and developing alternative or more successful strategies, he requests that learners re-enter the Action phase and ”practice right” using the newly suggested behaviors. This allows participants to develop awareness of current behavior patterns and to practice new choices based on that awareness. Whereas the Challenge Arena model simply has people talk about new behavior possibilities, Practice Fields have them practice those new possibilities.
(If the ”memory” of a favorable experience becomes ”incorporated,” then it is likely that the new behaviors will naturally find their way into the everyday workplace.)
Several important things can happen within the Practice Field paradigm, where facilitators are free to freeze and unfreeze action as often as they want:
The Practice Field also opens things up for facilitators in a number of interesting ways:
Moving to a Practice Field paradigm, therefore, dramatically reduces unnecessary pressure on both the facilitator and the team and dramatically increases the range of options for learning and changing behaviors.
In assessing these two models, the conclusion we reach is not that Practice Fields should replace Challenge Arenas. Rather, we suggest that Practice Fields are an additional resource that can expand the creativity and behavioral options of consultants, facilitators and trainers who use action learning devices and increase the likelihood of achieving the goals of action-based learning programs.