Role-playing and Skill Improvement
The Olympic Games at Sochi are over. We enjoyed watching incredible athletes doing what they have practiced and rehearsed for much of their lives. They were all winners.
Great athletes, like most people who are great in their field, understand the importance of practice. The “10,000-hour” rule exemplifies this: to be great, one must practice 10,000 hours. While few pursue such “greatness”, most want to do their jobs well. And excelling requires practice.
Football players do not just look at boards with X’s and O’s and then hit the field. They do “reps”…repeated actions over and over. Quarterbacks and receivers practice their comeback routes or post plays until the timing is perfect. A golfer knows that the only way to improve her short game is to hit hundreds of balls onto the green. Reading or watching a film will not do the trick. Musicians practice, and it is not always fun. I was at a clinic with Buddy DeFranco in the 60’s, and someone asked him how one can learn to play jazz. He said, “Practice your scales, man. Practice your scales.”
Yet, in business, practice is a rare thing. Managers and sales professionals may read a book or go to a workshop, but actually practicing a skill to learn or improve a behavior is rare. Few training programs emphasize practice, because practice in a training program has a name: Role-Playing.
No one likes role-playing.
As a trainer, the mere mention of a role-playing exercise brings immediate groans from an audience. Yet, experience and research clearly demonstrates that role-playing is the only way to learn or improve behaviors in a business setting. And not just one role-play. Learning better ways of doing things demands multiple role-playing exercises. People must practice to learn or improve a skill.
Practice, or role-playing, needs to be very specific. It needs to incorporate as much of the real environment or context experienced by the participant as possible. The player must be invited to see the situation, hear what people might be saying, and feel the tension.
As an example, consider this hypothetical example of a program to improve a service representative or delivery driver’s ability to obtain a contract or increase prices. The Service Manager works with a small group of deliverymen. One at a time, he invites each to role-play a conversation with a specific customer about price increases and contracts. The conversation might go like this:
“Juan, what is the name of your primary contact at Acme Metals?”
“OK, when you are making a delivery of uniforms, where is Larry?”
“He is usually in his office in the plant.”
“What is he typically doing?”
“He is usually looking at his computer or talking with one of his supervisors.”
“OK. Let’s practice both. First, let’s say he is looking at his computer. Can you see him sitting there? You need to talk with him. Do you speak to him before you hang up the fresh uniforms or after you have picked up the dirty ones?”
“OK. Let’s practice both. First, let’s pretend he is looking at his computer and you are just coming in with the fresh uniforms. What are you going to do with the uniforms if you want to speak with him now?”
“They are on a rack. I can just leave the rack outside his office door.”
“Great. Now…you have just left the rack and are approaching the door, you see him sitting at his desk, what do you do or say next? What’s the best way to start a conversation with him?….go ahead.”
What follows is a rehearsal of what to say to open the conversation, to explain the need for a contract–perhaps to lessen the impact of the future price increase, or whatever fits the circumstances. The role-play will practice those approaches. In addition, several different role plays will follow as the response of “Larry” changes, sometimes willing to talk, sometimes not interested. Each variation needs rehearsal.
In addition, different mini-scripts are needed. The service man should not have to make up what he needs to say to start a conversation. The mini-script needs to include Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic words as well as an embedded command such as “talk to me” or “want to talk with me”. Perhaps a “contract” can be offered: “If this is not a good time to talk with me, I can call next week to see what would work best for you during one of my next two deliveries. Would that be better for you…to talk with me next week?” (Then be certain to make that call and prove your trustworthiness.) Over time, this role-play scenario will change to include a different customer with different concerns, different visual settings, and different responses. Invite other service representatives or drivers to play the customer to keep the exercise as fun as possible.
It is important to realize that one role-play is not sufficient. At least 5 and ideally 10 rehearsals are likely to be necessary for each scenario for a service person to feel comfortable with this conversation. It is no different than practicing a golf swing enough to create “muscle memory.” Confidence comes from practice– practice saying words that will eventually feel normal. Build in enough repetition (reps) to prepare the participant to use the skill in his/her work. With practice, in the example above, a manager can probably direct 5 role-plays for one service person in a 20-minute training meeting per week, for instance. Obviously, observers will learn the scripts from watching others and will be able to slip into their own role-play more quickly over time.
As you can see, this is time consuming. The alternative is to waste a training session with talk and no follow-up. While 10 role-plays per situation is a long way from 10,000 hours, it will probably seem that long to participants and perhaps even to the manager leading the training session. But ask the winners at Sochi: Is there a shortcut to learning how to do a skill really well? Can I skip practice and just go out and do it? You know the answer. Role-play and people will learn. It is a wise and practical investment of time and resources.