Roger, There’s a Better Way

The NFL is running up against a problem that many non-sports related organizations are facing today, although under very different circumstances. The comparison: the NFL is using replacement referees during a labor dispute with the NFL Referees Association, and companies are faced with the imminent retirement of large numbers of very experienced baby boomers who were hired 25 to 30 years ago during a time of rapid economic growth. The problem for the NFL is how to replace very experienced referees with new ones who have limited or no NFL experience.

Although the replacement referees have had the preseason and three regular season games to get it right, in the opinion of the commentators, columnists, fans and just about everyone other than NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, it is getting worse. By now you know what I’m talking about.  It’s the controversial call in Monday night’s game between the Packers and the Seahawks.  Packers fans called it an interception. Seahawks fans called it a completion. After a lengthy review the officials called it a completion. Even though time continues to tick on, it is still the most widely trending topic on Twitter and is the first headline on all sports channels. Fortunately, I don’t have to take sides to make my point, although I have seen the replay.

Sports officials are trained to make decisions on events that happen in less than a second. Sports fans can only see whether the official was correct with slow-motion replays. Amazingly, most of the time the officials make the correct call. In the NFL, accuracy is claimed to be at 98 percent. The question is how do you learn to see simultaneous behaviors in a split second? This is a highly practiced skill, and the most common way to acquire this behavior is to have years of experience and deliberate practice. With an experienced NFL crew, a relatively new official has the benefit of the views and expertise of other seasoned officials and their knowledge of the rules to learn from.  When the whole crew is relatively inexperienced, as is the case with replacement refs, you lose that skill and expertise.

The other way to gain this skill is to compress experience. In other words, how can you give someone years of experience in a few weeks or months? In business, as in sports, most of the experience is acquired by extending practice beyond the classroom through on-the-job training. This is expensive and costly as inexperienced performers respond slower and make more errors than seasoned veterans.

A way to compress experience is through a behavioral process called fluency building. Fluency building requires that the student practices until accurate at high rates of responses per minute. In just 40 hours, Walter Schneider[i], a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, trained college students with no air traffic controller experience to perform at levels of accuracy better than three-year veterans. After a six-month delay, the students were still performing at the level of experts.  Morningside Academy uses this approach to teach children who are not doing well in a regular school classroom. Parents are guaranteed that the children will gain a minimum of two grade levels in their worst subject in just one year or money will be refunded. In more than 30 years of guaranteeing results, less than 1 percent have asked for a refund and the average increase in grade level is three years in just nine months. We have done this with great success in business as well (see Streamlining New Hire Training).

Although the method is generally unknown in business and the NFL, it offers many benefits over traditional methods of knowledge transfer. In both of these situations, what are considered to be very high rates of practice are required. The air traffic controllers had to make 35,000 decisions in 40 hours. In Morningside, for example, students have to calculate and write the answers to 70 math facts per minute with zero errors. Some students can do two per second.

Faced with the high rate of retirees over the next few years, businesses will be forced to seek faster ways to transfer skills to inexperienced employees. Thanks to the replacement referees, the problem has been brought to the attention of the public. Good news! We know how to do it. Bad news! The NFL didn’t consult us.


[i] Schneider, W. Getting Smart Quicker: Training More Skills in Less Time, FBPCS, 4/7/1989.