A couple of weeks back, I participated in the Finnish wilderness hiking championships. How to transfer things that we learned to everyday life?

During the four days, we hiked almost one hundred kilometers, swam in a lake with our gear on, spent the nights around a campfire and completed a variety of tasks. In my opinion, my hiking partner and I demonstrated good goal orientation, prioritization and decision-making skills which are all skills that I also aim to develop in working life. Now the challenge is to transfer things that we learned to everyday life.

Transfer of learning from coaching to genuine contexts of use is one ­of the recurring questions for coaching professionals. Especially when using experience-based methods and when training takes place in the nature, it is one of the main duties of the coach to ensure that participants are left with something else besides just a nice experience and maybe a few blisters. Usually experience-based drills give rise to inspiration and experiences of success, in which cases direct participant feedback shows its usefulness.

However, getting long-term positive results requires a great deal of extra work.

As a platform for inspiration, experience of the nature has benefits, which are difficult to come by otherwise. Leadership­simulations aim to create situations, where the choices made by the participants affect future outcomes. However, people know that they are participating in a simulation, so they may, for example, take bigger risks than they would in reality. Feedback from the nature is fair, concrete and incontestable. If you choose a wrong route and end up trudging knee-deep in a swamp, you will feel the consequences of your choice for a long time and it may genuinely put a strain on the relations within the hiking party.

Prioritize and trust your decisions

The most important learning experiences from my competition experience were related to prioritization. Before setting off, me and my hiking partner went through all our gear and discussed whether, for example, an extra pair of trousers is more important than a half a kilo's saving on a hundred kilometer hike. At the start line, explorer Patrick "Pata" Degerman, who was there to see the competitors off with a speech, tried to challenge even this decision. He looked at the gear of the participants and suggested that all teams should eliminate about one third of their gear seeing as the cars were still nearby. We weren't fooled by this since we knew we had made the right choices. The gear functioned as expected and generated trust in prioritization and limited risk taking, at least in a forest environment.

The first day at work after the competition, I was faced with a phenomenon that Jay Roberts describes in his book Beyond Learning by Doing. In the early 1990s, he was instructing a life management camp based on experience-based learning. A participant named Alvin achieved great results, created new operating models and was very happy about the course at its conclusion. However, after the course Roberts received a phone call. The caller was Alvin, who was asking whether he could come back to the camp. The new operating models that he had created were fine but he did not know how to apply them in interaction with individuals who had not participated in the camp. He needed to get back to the well-determined and supervised camp environment.

In my experience, in order to avoid this happening during a supervisor development project or experience-based coaching, attention should be paid to the following factors:

  1. Personal goals must always be set in advance. This way, the participants can steer their action to the right direction with regard to the achievement of the goals and are also committed to goal-oriented learning. In order to get as much as possible from the goal, the program must have enough opportunities to affect the sequence of events.

  2. Individuals who are important for the achievement of a goal must be made to commit to the development process. Otherwise, we will end up like Alvin who only knew how to apply his skills in a course group. I have applied this principle, for example, by including next level supervisors in selected periods of senior management training programs. Sometimes we have also brought in customers to visit our customer account development workshops. The minimum requirement is that the participant's immediate supervisor knows what the development areas are, so that he or she knows how to offer right kind of support.

  3. 3. Application of what has been learned must be trained already during the coaching. It is often useful and even necessary to hold the coaching event in an environment that is unfamiliar to the participants. The danger here is that coaching will be removed from the practice. The stranger the environment where an idea has been born, the more consciously it has to be disassembled and turned into an operating model in your own operating environment. Consequently, experience-based training sessions in the nature are often followed by a debriefing day. Operating models created in other coaching events are applied at participants' own workplaces in between the periods and the results will be discussed during the next contact day.

The most important requirement is that the experience is reflected on and lessons are recognized. In the absence of a more formal process, you can do this by yourself, like I did by writing this blog entry.

Finnish wilderness hiking championships.