Back in October 2014, I had a pleasure of an intellectual conversation with Dr. Lia DiBello, a well-known cognitive scientist, now President and CEO of WTRI, a San Diago based firm specializing in developing and delivering product/services based on leading edge cognitive science research on decision making, cognitive agility and enhanced performance in business. Dr. Lia DiBellow shared a powerful technique of simulating ‘rapidized failure cycles’ in a compressed time frame for rapidly accelerating expertise and drive behavioral changes in a team.
In addition to her numerous well-respected publications and research work, most recently she co-authored the direction defining book “Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in Complex World” with renowned expertise gurus Dr. Robert Hoffman, Dr. Steven Fiore, Dr. Dee Andrews, Dr. Paul Ward and Dr. Peter Feltovich. To know more about Dr. Di Bello’s work you may visit www.wtri.com.
Dr. DiBello shared her experiences and approach how she helps organizations to accelerate learning and accelerate expertise in real-world settings using a highly intense and very well-crafted technique of ‘simulating rapidized failure cycles’, she terms as ‘immersive strategic rehearsals’. The approach, deeply grounded in her research on cognitive learning, basically exposes participants to the simulated version of their company’s “future” in a highly compressed time frame. Within a few days, they must reach a set of “non-negotiable” goals show by various modeling to be possible if the organization operates at its maximum potential. Her breakthrough approach is helping organizations to acquire several years of worth of understanding down to just in a couple of days in a highly accelerated way. This is accomplished through multiple “failure cycles” as the team struggles to meet their goals. A true anchor for ‘accelerating expertise’ in the complex business world, Dr. DiBello talked about this revolutionary well-researched and well-experimented model of accelerating expertise:
How is your work at WTRI related to accelerating the expertise of employees in organizational settings?
Dr. DiBello: We are cognitive scientists. So we look at what the brain does. We look at brain processing and how people learn and we do have an understanding of what’s involved with accelerated learning.
All the people that we work with are already experts of some kind; they are not unskilled. But things may have changed in their industry or field and they are now experts in the wrong way. And what we try to get them to do is be experts in another way. In other words, it’s not a lack of skill; it’s more like that their skill level is very high in one area might be getting in their way of seeing that a new approach is needed. Or, they may know a new approach is needed, but in the process of doing their work, they can’t turn off what has become automatic ways of thinking about the issues.
Our exercises are more a situation room that is very specific to a specific problem. A good way to look at it is a war game. The military practices fighting with a jungle enemy, and they think of all the things that could happen in that environment with that kind of war theater and rehearse various eventualities. We kind of do that.
For example, a small company into highly innovative medical devices was at the edge of a breakdown and financial mess because they were not able to successfully commercialize and not able to secure FDA approval for their devices. We found that there was a serious disconnect between scientific team and marketing team and the way they orchestrated the clinical trial, collected data and the way they understood each team’s angle. The critical need was to accelerate scientific team’s understanding of business aspect and, conversely, the way the marketing team understands scientific challenges, such as how innovations they already had could be used in the marketplace with fewer FDA hurdles to overcome.
We constructed one of our rehearsal exercises for this team. They were put in a simulated situation in which they had to run their company in miniature form for two days. At the outset, we told participants that set that they were going to rehearse the future of your company given what we know from the columnists and experts. Their mission was to increase their market cap three times and they were required to get to the certain stock price.
It was a hands-on exercise, they actually had a wet lab and they had to develop devices, and they had to work on models of human beings and also manufacture devices to fill orders. The devices were fictional but they were analogous to what that they do. Further, they had to meet similar FDA approval requirements which they had in reality. In summary, they had to get their products approved in the exercise in less than 12 months, and they had to develop the market for their other products.
These situation environments are designed in a way in which those missions were possible. We also construct failure into it. If it’s possible to fail or to succeed, participants have to figure out which is which. It’s not scripted exactly.
It appears like designing these ‘situation rooms’ uses a mixture of several strategies and is crafted around much more realistic and plausible situation. Is it similar to a case based or scenario-based strategy?
Dr. DiBello: We call it rehearsal – ‘a strategic rehearsal’ and it is similar to simulation and scenario-based training but it’s much more intense. And it’s much more specific to the cognitive models that people have what they think of the problem. The idea is that people don’t necessarily have no idea what to do, they just have a flawed idea of what will work. And when companies are failing they just try and try, over and over again to make this wrong idea work. What we do is to create an intense exercise within highly compressed time. In the example I mentioned earlier I think we did something like 6 months’ worth of business in 1 day in the exercise. As a result, people can see the consequences of their assumptions within that compressed situation. They can see where they’re wrong. And they can see what it leads to. So then they come back and they do it again.
How does ‘redoing’ lead to ‘doing it right’? Are you building a deliberate reflection between two cycles?
Dr. DiBello: Part of my research involves asking the question why do it twice seems to accelerate learning. We know it does, but unclear why. I think what we really accelerate is the failure cycles, and it seems as though becoming an expert requires trial and error, and a certain number of failure cycles to move you through all of your inaccurate assumptions.
There is a debate about how much reflection really happens; we’re not sure. The people going through the exercise are really very much in the zone of trying to solve the problems. They’re almost on autopilot. They’re not really standing back and reflecting very much. But once they get into the zone of trying and failing, trying and failing, it kind of takes on a life of its own, and then they finally hit on the answer and that I think is what happens. It’s kind of like a cognitive Darwinism where all the things that might work get tried and the thing that will work get found.
Regarding your question about reflection, in the early years when we first started doing this, we did do some things that we don’t do anymore, and one of them is getting people to reflect on what they are learning. We find that it adds no value and can in-fact be distracting to people. Reflection might help them understand their problems abstractly, but does not lead to change. It did not work out well and we don’t do that anymore. We may review afterward like after few days but during the exercise we don’t.
It’s more important that they have access to granular feedback that is being constantly updated, such as automated charts that show the impact of what they are trying. Over the years we found that once the exercise starts as long as the feedback is easily accessed and updated frequently, they don’t need anything else. They just need to know how they are doing in relation to a goal.
What is your fundamental philosophy that drives the design of these intense rehearsal activities and situations?
Dr DiBello: We have our own cognitive learning model which is very simple. All the research that I did as a cognitive scientist – before I was even in business—was that people learn by reorganizing what they have rather than by accretion. Once they’re adults, people begin with the frameworks and content they have, and “learning” is actually repurposing all of the rich content that they have from their life experience for a new purpose. A lot of methods encourage you to “forget” what you know and start over. I don’t think this actually works very well. If you can harness the natural reorganization process and make it for a specific purpose, you can get what amounts to accelerated learning. And the key driver to the reorganization is getting opportunities to assimilate your model of the domain to a situation, see if it works or not. And see the ways that it doesn’t work and it does work, and then keep refining it iteratively.
We call it the cycle of failure, iterative refinement or iterative reorganization, and my theory is that the brain has no sense of time; it takes about two to three years or even longer for normal life to give you that experience to change your models and to refine them for new purposes. But your brain doesn’t really care how long it takes, it cares how many failures cycles it gets to experience. If you pack them for a few days you get the same effect as two years of learning in a couple of days. And that’s what our research has been about. So we think that accelerating the iterative cycles in specific ways is the way to accelerate learning.
How does your approach of replicating time pressure in the situation room help to accelerate expertise in organization settings?
Dr DiBello: Our research has shown that learning under the pressure of having to accomplish a goal by a specific time is the usual environment in which people develop their most valuable skills and knowledge of the work they do. More importantly, skills or ways of thinking that have been acquired this way can only really be “unlearned” or altered by “relearning” under a similar goal-oriented time pressure. This is a form of “state-dependent” learning. For example. we have all had the experience of learning new methods of doing our work or looking at problems with a new paradigm in a leisurely seminar. We all believe we have changed and learned until we go back to work and try to apply these things. More often than not, when we go back to the pressures of the workplace, we default to the old ways of doing and thinking. Our work suggests that when the seminar is stressful, dynamic and problem solving oriented in the same way as real work is, we transfer the new learning back to work much more easily. It becomes our new “default” mode of working and thinking.
Is the ‘model of cognitive learning’ you mentioned based on some existing theory or extension of some previous research? Or is it your own original research?
Dr Lia DiBello: Many years ago, I was working at a large computer science lab. I was studying computer scientists and trying to understand why the computer scientists were having such difficulties in making the change from linear programming to object-oriented programming. And then I realized that those who were successful at it did iterative experimentation and refinement of a model that they already had from linear programming. And when they did that, they were better programmers than people who just learned to do object-oriented programming from scratch and who never were experts at linear programming. So, people who were already experts, they have a really hard time becoming experts of a different kind, but when they do, it’s a process of reorganization, and when you can make that happen, they’re better at it than other people. I think this is because they have rich content to draw on for the new models. The accumulation of experiences or examples may take years of practice. However, repurposing that content – it might be possible to make that happen very quickly. That’s how it can accelerate learning and hence accelerate expertise in acquiring new knowledge or skill.
Is it fair to say that fundamentally it is like exposing participants to ‘cycles of failure’ that leads to speed up the reorganization of mental models to new situations?
Dr Lia DiBello: Yes, and it has to be rapid cycles. Jean Piaget, the inventor of the whole idea of cognitive schemas, was the first person to just look at the mechanisms of the brain and how it assimilates its current schemas to the new situation and how having those schemas, when they are perturbed, reorganize into new schemas. His research was done in the early 20th century and involved children, but we found that the fundamental mechanisms apply.
All we did was take the basic principle and say let’s accelerate it, let’s push it to the limit, let’s do as much as we can in a couple of days and see what happens and the result we got is about two years’ worth of change in a couple of days. And it transfers back to real work very easily because people are reorganized so fundamentally that they can’t go back to the way they were, it’s gone. It’s like learning a new language and forgetting your mother tongue. If you immerse yourself in another language for many years, you get rusty in your mother tongue if you never speak it. And that’s kind of what happens. It’s very difficult for them to go back to the way they used to do it if we are successful.
How is this ‘immersive strategic rehearsal’ or ‘rapidized failure cycles’ approach different from traditional approaches of simulation being used by other practitioners to accelerate learning or expertise in an organizational setting?
Dr DiBello: I would say the traditional methods or the traditional use of the simulations are of two kinds:
One is practice-based practice. Having people practice the right way to do things, and we think actually that creates an “expertise inverse” effect, which makes people who could be experts less than experts, it holds them back I think. It’s very traditional for people to just practice and memorize with simulations. It’s kind of bottom up.
The other type of simulation, which is a little bit more sophisticated and has value, are simulations that develop general capability, like the ability to manage conflict or the ability to do a budget or the ability to figure out the key drivers in a project. Those are valuable but they don’t help you when you have an expert who’s in trouble or who needs to be an expert in a different way, you have to go deeper then, because they are very capable already, they’re just deploying their capability in the wrong way.
And these both are very bottom-up. In other words, they’re like lessons that people learned and they don’t tend to transfer very well back to real situations. When people go back to work they tend to go back on their autopilots and do things they’ve always done. Why it happens so? What we see is that people who work in a particular environment, and they’re experts of a certain kind, the environment itself triggers these defaults. So people can do simulations where they develop new capabilities but when they go back to the old environment the old behaviors get triggered.
I use an example to explain this auto-pilot behavior. Let’s say you live in a house and you move to a new house and you go to work and you have a very stressful day at work and you have a lot on your mind and you drive home after work and you realize that you’ve driven to your old house. The schema to drive to your old house is an autopilot developed over a long time. It doesn’t require very much attention. So when you’re not paying attention or you don’t have attention to pay, you’ve got a lot of other stuff on your mind, all your autopilots come out and take over.
Using the desired goal or outcome as our starting point, we construct a rehearsal where your focus is achieving the goal and inventing the means, but there is enough richness to it that you can also fail, in all kinds of ways, and succeed in ways that maybe only you, as an experienced person, can see. So essentially what we do is we construct the old environment and we reprogram those defaults. So they’re gone. Once someone has gone through our exercises, they have a new set of defaults.
To conclude, how effective is the rapidized failure simulation model in enabling individuals to rapidly acquire a new skill and retain it?
Dr. DiBello: We’ve done this with about 7,000 people so far and we’ve had a few individuals who didn’t transfer well but there were probably other issues involved in that. But the companies were all able to implement what they had rehearsed in a successful simulation back at the company. We have one case where there was no degradation after 10 years, and many others that we tracked for five years or more, all with rapid and enduring change.
The most interesting case was an organization where the senior leadership would not let the teams implement the new approach. This was very unfortunate since the approached developed during the exercise was better for the business. (Since that happened we always get senior executive agreement to any change the participants want to try). We were sure that they would be reprogrammed again when they went back to the work and couldn’t change anything. However, two years later, the leadership changed and removed the constraints; they implemented what they had developed in their exercise. We saw a rapid change in the organization even though it had been two years since they had rehearsed it. This was very surprising to us, but does indicate the power of the approach.
The most relevant ones to the topic in this interview are listed here for readers:
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: I highly appreciate Dr. Lia DiBello spending time with me to provide this insightful information how accelerated failure cycles under highly compressed time pressure helps accelerate the expertise, acquire new skills and understanding faster and change behaviors rapidly.
CREDITS: Thoughts expressed in this blog are credited to Dr. Lia DiBello. Any part of this conversation cannot be reproduced without explicit permission from Dr. Lia DiBello. The article can be cited with appropriated citation and reference. The article first published Oct 1, 2014.
Image credits: Pixabay CC0 Attribution