Why is serious training so rare?

The Warrior Elite by Dick Couch offers an insight into the training of a group of young men on their way to become US Navy SEALs (pre-9/11). The training of special forces fascinates me. Not so much the physical aspects, impressive as those are, but the overall process and approach. The resources and efforts dedicated to training (per individual) are unheard of in any other profession outside of perhaps elite performing arts – ballet, classical music, or gymnastics for example. But software engineers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, politicians, architects, and builders don’t come close.

In the best case, after a few years of comparatively leisurely university studies and some professional exams, training1 is limited to maybe a day or two per month (and that’s optimistic). For example, if you think health care takes training seriously, say because doctors spend several years in school, Atul Gawande writes about easily preventable mistakes that cost lives in The Checklist Manifesto. Good intentions are not enough.2

So why do tactical units in the military and elite performing arts take training much more seriously than other professions?

The work special forces do stands out from most other in that the stakes are high (death or serious injury) and the costs are borne directly by those performing the job. But health care and politics3 are also high-stakes endeavours and they don’t take training as seriously. Furthermore, performing arts don’t have as high stakes. So is it because soldiers risk their own lives rather than those of their patients’ or the citizens’? I don’t think so. Special forces training is not instigated by the soldiers, but by their superiors who will not be in the literal line of fire. And again, performing arts do not carry those risks.

I don’t have a definite answer, but my guess is that special forces and performing arts simply have unusually strong incentives to perform well and the best tool to perform well turns out to be training.

Special forces have such strong incentives to perform well because of a combination of clear, direct feedback and a culture of accountability. The success or failure of an operation is hard to dispute and individuals are held responsible up the chain of command (until we get to politicians). Similar incentives exist in the performing arts because assessments are again hard to dispute and individuals are accountable for their own performances.

Thus, there seems to be at least anecdotal evidence that when performance matters, significant resources are dedicated to training. The effectiveness of training is backed up by research on things like deliberate practice.

So could it be that most organisations don’t take training seriously because they lack the incentives to perform well? I think so. This might at first seem like a dubious claim – aren’t many of these professions highly competitive? They can be, but there are dynamics that counteract this. First, the effects of decisions can take months or years to reveal themselves and then be so intertwined with other decisions that no one bothers to assess them. Secondly, most work is time constrained rather than quality constrained. We set deadlines instead of standards.4 We focus on the timing of output, not its quality. Therefore, organisations fail to develop both an appreciation of high standards and the ability to demand, train for, recognise, and deliver them. This time focus happens on all levels – from quarterly earnings reports for CEOs to daily quotas for sales staff. Incentives to perform well are replaced by incentives to deliver on time regardless of quality.

Special forces have a culutre that can set and demand high standards, something that is becoming less and less acceptable in other parts of society. My impression is that many see high standards as “elitist” (I’d argue that it’s quite the opposite) or that it puts too much stress on individuals. Politicians, parents, and talking heads seem to believe that absence of even moderate strain – physical, emotional, and intellectual – is a good thing and they compete to protect others from such strain, not recognising that they often do them (and society) a disservice instead. Couch makes a similar observation:

It’s obvious that many who arrive at BUD/S [the training programme] have logged more than a few hours in the weight room. But life in these United States is good—and often soft. On balance, the feel-good generation may be less prepared mentally for the crucible of BUD/S than their predecessors. (p. 166)

So we have good news and we have bad news. The bad news is that cultural change is hard to achieve even when there is general concensus that change is needed (and there is no such concensus today). The good news is that there is significant latent value to be realised by getting serious about training. We can pursue higher standards for ourselves and the work we assess without anyone’s permission, even if we can’t expect any immediate rewards other than the feeling that comes with a job well done.

  1. When I say training I don’t mean sending employees on a 1 week retreat where they socialise and sleep through swishy PowerPoint presentations. I mean focused and effortful deliberate practice.

  2. Eric Greitens makes an important point about the distinction between the morality of intentions and the morality of results: it doesn’t matter what we hope to achieve if we don’t actually achieve it.

  3. Politics determine what wars are fought and is abundant with indirect influence over people’s lives through regulation, education, or justification/acceptance of murderous regimes. The real job of a politician is to make sure good decisions get made for their constituency, but they are instead incentivised to become good at getting elected, which is a very different job.

  4. There are many cases when fast delivery trumps quality (up to a point). I’m not arguing against that at all. The point I’m making is that without a good understanding of how to produce something well given a time limit, you can’t set appropriate standards. Lots of tasks performed in a wide range of professions could be done both faster and better with the right training.