In this next excerpt from the upcoming Ski Guide Manual, Rob Coppolillo offers insights into the value of the often overlooked debrief. Want more? Pre-order your copy (scheduled to ship in early November) and check out past excerpts.
Ah, you caught that! I snuck in the word “valid” in the previous section. We receive feedback all day long, in everything we do. It’s how we change course, error correct, adjust our behavior, gauge results, and, yeah, improve.
But not all feedback is created equal. In environments with a “significant degree of uncertainty and unpredictability,” we begin to second-guess the accuracy or validity of the feedback. These are “low-validity” environments, according to Kahneman and others. In ski-guide terms, this means the feedback you get might not be the feedback you should get.
For example, we go ride on a deep day, getting fresh tracks, and return to the trailhead with stoked clients or buddies; maybe we even snag a fat tip. Oh, yeah, we’re good at this! What happens, though, after a “great day,” when you return home to read of four avalanches within a couple miles of your tour? Having seen your hero footage on Facecramp, a mentor calls and asks, “Were you comfortable all being on that slope?”
The following day you return to the field nearby; you get full propagation in an ECT and observe the debris of a skier triggered avalanche—same aspect, next drainage over from your original line. (I’m describing my own near miss in 2016. Check out my article in The Avalanche Review, December 2017; link in the “Suggested Reading” list.)
The smart money is on recategorizing the “great day” as a near miss. Rather than call the day a success, you recognize that you could have easily ended up involved in an accident.
We’ll talk more about near misses in a sec. The point here is that the backcountry doesn’t return valid feedback much of the time—and that’s not just tricky, it’s dangerous. Instead of learning a lesson and debriefing a near miss, we might high-five, head home to the family, and recount tales of our skill, heroism, and panache. The feedback we received—hero skiing—is not the feedback we should’ve gotten: You jokers barely survived!
As we acquire experience, it needs to be evaluated and cataloged, which is hard to do unless you slow down, engage your evidence-driven logical mind (or “System 2” thinking; more on this in the “Decision Making” chapter), perform a conscientious debrief with your crew, and listen.
Luck or Skill?
Running a marathon or throwing a javelin offer easy metrics—time and distance—for gauging success, improvement, and skill. But what about backcountry touring or mountain guiding?
Sure, we can look at how often we’re getting caught in avalanches or whether our guests survive days in the mountains with us. Those are obvious “metrics,” relying on obvious feedback.
But hang on a sec; that’s pretty risky feedback on which to focus. Further, we’re assuming any day we don’t kill a guest or get involved in an avalanche is a “success.” (That’s a terrible sentence to write, honestly.) If we gauge our mastery in the mountains with those metrics, when we finally do get some negative feedback—an involvement or fatality—it will be at the least dangerous and at the worst utterly tragic. No thanks.
What’s more, on those “successful” days, how do we know we didn’t just get lucky? The balance between luck and skill resists easy measurement, so much so that Dr. Michael Mauboussin wrote a book about it, The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing. He argues two points that matter here: First, “deliberate practice” is essential for developing skill; second, valid feedback is essential for practicing deliberately.
Valid feedback, a solid team, and a thorough debrief helps us accurately perceive our lucky days versus our skills—and correctly identify our near misses.
Celebrate the Near Miss (avalanchenearmiss.org)
High-performing teams and organizations recognize that near misses are actually learning opportunities and blessings in their own way. This, of course, requires correctly identifying near misses in the first place. Failing to recognize a near miss, or dismissing it through a “no-harm, no-foul” attitude, is a lost opportunity for recreationists—and downright negligent for professionals.
Kahneman, in Thinking, phrases the risk thus: “If repeated exposure of a stimulus is followed by nothing bad, such a stimulus will eventually become a safety signal.”
Jonah Lehrer reinforces this sentiment in How We Decide, diving into the neuroscience and neurochemistry of it, discussing dopamine reward circuits in the brain. If our brain mistakes a near miss for a “safety signal,” we’re actually building in dangerous behaviors to our practice and mistaking it for “best practices.” Some writers have called this “normalizing deviance.”
The take home for us is that near misses, if themselves missed, can actually become “safety signals,” or tales of success and skill in the backcountry. Can you think of a worse outcome from the days when we just got lucky?
Firefighters in particular have profited from a culture of reporting, recording, and learning from near misses. Go to firefighternearmiss.org and give a look. Surprising, eh? Initiated in 2005, the organization has amassed thousands of near misses in its database, and tens of thousands of first responders and firefighters have learned from their colleagues’ experiences.
Avalanche professionals have adopted a similar platform at avalanchenearmiss.org. If you’re a guide, patroller, instructor, or forecaster, share your near misses with us there. Don’t be shy. Celebrate near misses and share them with your teammates. If you can’t, that’s a good sign that you’re not skiing with a team.
Canadian ski guide Dr. Iain Stewart-Patterson said it well in his PhD dissertation: “The role of the ski guiding environment is of particular interest, as it allows poor decisions to masquerade as good ones.” Don’t let a poor decision—and we all make ’em—masquerade as a success.
Rob Coppolillo is a mountain guide and writer, based on Vashon Island, in Puget Sound. He’s the author of The Ski Guide Manual.