Sharpen Your Axe: Importance of TT&E (Part 1/3)

by Dec 8, 2016Leadership, Preparedness, Training/exercising

Sharpen Your Axe (Part 1)
Tests, Training & Exercises

During my time with Dale Carnegie Training, I heard countless stories about great business and government leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Warren Buffett, Charles Schwab, and even Dale Carnegie himself. These stories illustrated concepts such as interpersonal relationships and networking, confidence and inner strength, public speaking and leadership affinity, along with a variety of others.

Though most of the stories told were complex historical accounts, my favorite illustration was a simple piece of fiction – an allegory designed to remind us to take care of ourselves and continue “sharpening our axe” every day. If you’ve ever taken the Dale Carnegie Course, you know which story I’m referring to:

A young man approached the foreman of a logging crew and asked for a job. “That depends,” replied the foreman. “Let’s see you fell this tree.

The young man stepped forward, and skilfully felled a great tree. Impressed, the foreman exclaimed, “You can start Monday.”

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday rolled by — and Thursday afternoon the foreman approached the young man and said, “You can pick up your pay check on the way out today.

Startled, the young man replied, “I thought you paid on Friday.”

“Normally we do,” said the foreman. “But we’re letting you go today because you’ve fallen behind. Our daily felling charts show that you’ve dropped from first place on Monday to last place today.”

“But I’m a hard worker,” the young man objected. “I arrive first, leave last, and even have worked through my coffee breaks!”

The foreman, sensing the young man’s integrity, thought for a minute and then asked, “Have you been sharpening your axe?”

The young man replied, “No sir, I’ve been working too hard to take time for that!”

This is a relevant story for leadership & professional development, but also a powerful metaphor for public safety and emergency management tests, training, and exercises (TT&E).


There are numerous components to ensure core capabilities are understood and maintained within your organization. Whether you are a tactical team that is focused on “boots on the ground” response measures or a high-tech management group, the tenants of and building-block approach to organizational capability development remain the same:

Professional Development

Every organization needs to think about the professional development of their workforce -whether volunteer or career- as the foundation of their success. Organizations often think about professional development in terms of hiring personnel with the right skill-sets, placing them in the right role, and ensuring structures are in place to allow that individual to succeed within the organization. Sometimes, this hiring and vetting process is where the planning stops.

From that point on, personnel are often left to their own devices to develop knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA’s) that support agency objectives and their own goals/aspirations within the organization or industry; other times, agencies have strict guidelines for their professional development and employ training matrices, taskbooks, calendars, benchmarks and other tools to ensure the people working on mission-critical functions are maintaining existing competencies and building others. A balance of the two approaches mentioned above works best, simultaneously allowing motivated personnel to drive their own professional development and explore new areas, while also adhering to agency/industry standards and best practices.

Group-oriented Training: Seminars & Workshops

The next step in the continuum includes discussion-based seminars and workshops. These enhance and reinforce existing competencies within each individual, while simultaneously reinforcing organizational practices, norms, policies, etc. at the team level.

Seminars are the first foray into transitioning an individual competency into a team or organizational competency. Seminars are informal discussions, designed to orient participants to new or updated plans, policies, or procedures; the topics of which could be to educate personnel on a new practices or refresh existing knowledge, identify and clarify roles/responsibilities at different phases, etc..

Seminars mostly employ one-way communication (instructor/trainer educating the students) and the main goal of a seminar is to inform.

Workshops differ from seminars in that they are led by a facilitator (as opposed to an instructor/trainer), are often focused around small group discussion, and have a specific goal/deliverable to be created (or ideas generated toward this goal) during the session. Because of the wide range of topics, deliverables, products, and other items potentially generated during a workshop, workshop scope and length can vary greatly between organizations, individual teams, focus areas, and industries.

There are two different workshop structures:

1. A single organization or team gathers to create a deliverable (e.g. a humantiarian aid organization gathers everyone from their communications team together to revise their crisis communications plan/strategy during a 3-hour facilitated workshop).

2. Representatives from a variety of organizations or teams gather to create a deliverable to bring back to their respective agencies (e.g. various first response organizations attend a 1-hour joint workshop to develop a cache of pre-scripted messages for a variety of hazards/threats).

The main format employed for successful workshops include small group discussion, brainstorming, and collaborative work. The main goal for a workshop is to produce.

Interested in Testing, Training & Exercising within Your Organization?

How do managers and other leadership decide what training seminars, workshops, and other opportunities to offer and at what times? How do individuals identify gaps in their understanding or perishable skills that need refreshing? Take a look at your After Action Reports (AARs), Improvement Plans (IPs), past training records, and other documents to make these decisions. A strong training and exercise program will employ a MYTEP (Multi-Year Training & Exercise Plan) or similar document to drive this strategy at the organizational level.

Professional development, training seminars, and workshops are all critical and inter-connected steps toward building organizational capabilities and core competencies. With a solid foundation from each category outlined in this blog post, your agency will be well on its way to “sharpening its axe” on a regular basis; this approach takes time and commitment, but supports an organizational culture that is open to growing sustainably and with an innovative mindset.

Check out the next posts in this series for more information on discussion – and operations – based exercises!

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