Sunday, 21 January 2018

The first year as Observer

This month marks the first anniversary of gaining the Observer tag for IAM, so an opportune time to cast my mind over the past 12 months.

It's been an interesting experience to date, many positives and the odd negative as well. Seeing riders improve with suitable guidance is always a buzz, that's a given for me and it explains my passion for helping others. The downsides are few and far between, although I'll admit that seeing and hearing some narrow minded folks running down post licence training...well it grinds my gears a bit.

In my work environment we have a similar division between those who want to keep improving, and a small number who view any initiative to "be the best you can be" with not just suspicion but even derision. Not always the older chaps either, maybe it's just not cool to be compliant, safe and sensible aye? Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning as it appears resistance to post licence training is waning in some quarters. Same as at work, once the results start to show through, more are willing to have a closer look.

Take the ACC sponsored Rideforever series as an example. At the outset, only those who craved improvement went along. I can admit to being a participant in post licence training as soon as it became readily available. The funny thing that has stood out is how resistance to this type of training seems to have waned. As an Observer for IAM, my view is that we can take over from where the Gold course signs off. The basis for Rideforever is Roadcraft, so anyone following R4E on with IAM, will quickly see the basics are the same. Where IAM differs is we have the luxury to finesse more details, firstly as it's done one on one, and secondly the coaching is ongoing. Well, ongoing until an Associate reaches the standard required for the Advanced Test or until they give up I suppose.

So if you've done R4E you may have noticed the tendency for a day course to be driven largely from the lowest common denominator? Now I've partaken in a few R4E courses, and I'm not knocking the series or providers at all, but it's inevitable that the least able in the group ends up deciding how much is learnt on a day. You can do the same course several times over a number of years and still only get most of the content or intent. That's certainly the thing I found, which is ultimately why I made the move to join IAM.

For me passing the Advanced Test was a stepping stone, then qualifying as Observer was the next one. Mentoring Associates has been fun so far, but now the past few months have been the most challenging so far though, as I'm now partaking in training the next batch of Observers. My two assigned trainee Observers are both trainers/tutors in their day jobs, so lots of similarity to my own background. Now both of these chaps can identify faults, getting to the root cause of these faults is another step, then working on corrective action is another skill. I suppose it gets easier with time, and we have multiple rides to work thru. Take for example when an Associate tends to brake often for easy bends, is this a gear selection issue? Poor forward observation? Just a habit? For me personally it was a combination of all three when I was an Associate.

Then progressing to Observer gave me a new appreciation how tricky the task of the Observer can be, now mentoring trainee Observers is cranking it up some more. But hey, we get to have fun as well. I'll share how me playing the role of fast rider, then having my trainee Observer following can quickly show to a trainee Observer how a mental overload can come about. The fast rider may have an Observer riding near or at their limit, which then leaves little or nothing in reserve to actually observe. So apart from giving a trainee Observer a real taste of this situation, we can swiftly follow it up with techniques for dealing with this, taking charge of the situation, keeping it safe and turning it around to maintain a positive learning environment. Building blocks or even light bulb moments.

The next element to keep in mind is that the IAM journey is one of multiple rides. So you might have been on a Rideforever course, the instructor gave you plenty of helpful advice during the day, but at the end you left without homework? Well, as an Observer we're expected to not just identify fault (root cause of fault really) but we have to correct it. At the end of a ride we have to send an Associate away with an action plan, so as to make a lasting change in their behaviour. This often entails homework of sorts, reading up a specific topic, then next outing we get to see how well this was absorbed. Now picture a trainee Observer learning the above steps. If one can picture an objective and break down the incremental steps needed to walk an Associate in the required direction, this is easy aye? Well, the Advanced Test is the objective and all that remains is for the Observer to keep measuring and guiding the Associate.

We all take a slightly different approach to achieving the objective, so we'll have differences between Observers. In some ways it's a problem, yet in other ways it can actually help an Associate. When I was an Associate it was certainly a bit of both. For trainee Observers, having a simple way to deal with what at the outset is one of the more challenging aspects, can help tremendously. What I'm referring to here is a trick to remember enough of the positives and negatives observed during a ride. This came from my day job some years back. Think of two pyramids, one for good, another for bad points. By nature we tend to remember the negatives easily, the positive stuff not so much. Keep the pyramids balanced is the trick, but we now need to add a priority element to both. The Wellington lads from IAM shared their 3 L approach when I did the Observer course. This sounded similar to a method from work, but 3 Ls made more sense, so I've adopted it and freely share this with my trainee Observers. The 3 Ls stand for Life / Licence / Learnings. So to use an example, if an Associate does nothing to endanger life during a ride, only one item to endanger licence, the rest is just learnings. It's now up to us to remember enough positive elements from the ride to "package" these negatives in between positives, so as to elicit an improvement from the Associate going forward. The term applied to this technique is the "shit sandwich" and it makes me chuckle, for it actually works quite well, so I've taken this into my work place. It sure as heck works better at eliciting improvements over time than the hard line encouraged in the olden days by trainers.

The variations between Observers could be deemed a problem, right? Yes and no. Before the Advanced Test there's this lovely element called the Cross Check. So whilst we can see variations in coaching approach, and even how one Observer scores/rates an Associate, by the time the cross check is done we end up a level playing field. I suppose on some level I struggle with this aspect, for to me the riding standard is fairly black & white and I'm used to working with SOPs and accepted standards in my work place. But oh well, human nature...

Those two words, human nature, are a very important part of whether the IAM approach works for you or not. An Observer needs to be able to relax an Associate, for this is essential to see the true nature or ability of the Associate. There are several high stress times for an Associate as they progress towards their Advanced Test. The initial assessment can have some prospective Associates buzzing with nerves. The cross check can similarly freak some riders out, to the point where their nerves skew the performance drastically. The advanced test itself, on unfamiliar turf, can once again unsettle a capable rider, to the point where an examiner may be wondering whether it's nerves or lack of ability.

Our methods continue to be refined as IAM in NZ grows of course. As an example, I favour putting an Associate thru a mock cross check prior to sending them off for the real deal. The objective is to help an Associate see for themselves they've got the topic under control, in effect quelling the self doubt they may have. Human nature again aye? Taking a rider away from their home turf is another aid we can use, again it instills self confidence if they can perform to a high standard on unfamiliar roads. We're never going to turn a back country resident into a city slicker, with the tendency to lane split at the slightest provocation, but we can at least give them the tools to safely negotiate city traffic. The chap who only commutes in suburban settings can similarly feel lost on roads where the centre line ends, at least initially.

Makes the task of the Observer quite a tall order, or at least appear like it at first. As perverse as this may sound, enjoying it more than ever though, and learning all the while myself.


  1. Absolutely nailed it Rob! As well as raising the skills of riders to a measurable and internationally-accepted standard, we can overlook the effect it has on the Observer. Firstly, we're always learning too, not only about better ways of coaching but about how we interact with people. That, of course, is transferrable to all aspects of our life. Who'd have thought that membership of IAM would have such a big impact? The ultimate win-win.

    1. It's been an interesting journey so far Geoff. The learning never ends, maybe that's the most enjoyable aspect.