Xbox 2.0: The Greatest Expectation

I originally wrote “From the XboxTM to the Box Alarm” in 2008 as I stumbled upon what I saw as a direct correlation between Generation Y and the influence of video games on virtually every aspect of their lives.

Based on my reading of some formal research conducted by those a lot smarter than I am (not that it takes a lot!), I started to introduce my audiences to a new breed of firefighter–a group of people who, at least on the surface, appeared to be the polar opposite of the values and characteristics embodied and passed on by us and our predecessors–a group others have labeled the “Why?” -or- “I” generation. I have dubbed it  the “XboxTM Generation”!

REALITY-Xbox  As I look back on it now, my true understanding of this generation was all but in its infancy. For as I started to drink my own Kool-Aid and practice what I preached about surrounding myself with the gamer generation to gain a better understanding of this new set of society members, I gained an even greater appreciation for not only their uniqueness, but their potential to make all the good things about previous generations even greater.

One 19 y/o live-in firefighter said this about my Xbox Live conversation: "Not only are you so right about your generation, but you're so right about my generation -- and that's what p***ed me off!"

One 19 y/o live-in firefighter said this about my Xbox Live conversation: “Not only are you so right about your generation, but you’re so right about my generation — and that’s what p***ed me off!”

By virtue of increased demand for my “Xbox LiveTM” conversation, I’ve been invited into a number of firehouses around the country to explore a variety of service delivery, leadership and organizational models, to conduct what I call my “observational research.”

While most folks focus on how technology is accelerating the gaps between generations, in my XboxTM conversation we explore how properly applied technology can increase the opportunities for connections between the more experienced (notice I didn’t say “older”) firefighters and those who haven’t gained their own experiences yet. We direct this focus by first bringing all parties to consensus on three key points:

  1. 95 percent of the fires we fight are in the firehouse–not on the fireground; yet we invest our time, energy, and especially our money in the exact opposite proportion on all the things that are 100 percent useless without the proper quantity and quality of people to make them work. At the core of all we do is people. Everything we do is for, and with people. We are in the people business.
  2. All firefighters have an obligation to be “technologically sound”–not just the WebGens of today but also the firefighters who once thought quadraphonic and high fidelity were “state of the art” too.
  3. Not only are most of the solutions to today’s fire service challenges within our reach, but many of those solutions can be found among the participants in the Xbox LiveTM conversation, provided that they demonstrate the will and determination to share their ideas freely and productively.

Once consensus is built, we hold each other accountable to these ideals whenever either party throws up a red flag, an obstacle to why we can’t change.


Cartoon courtesy of Bill Carey

From this jumping-off point we set out to divert my generation from the perspective that today’s Xbox generation of firefighters are all “unmotivated slackers” to the reality that most of them, at least as I’ve discovered in my observational research, are young people who are truly starved for strong, effective leadership. But in many cases they haven’t experienced this definitive leadership style yet, because at home they had ‘friends’ instead of parents. They didn’t get it at school because we’ve stripped teachers and administrators of virtually every right and authority to impart discipline and respect. Thus, when they arrive at the firehouse door of our paramilitary organizations, it’s not only a rude awakening for us – but for them too.

For example, one of the chief complaints I receive about today’s generation is that they need to have their hands held while doing everything. How long have we known that? If that’s the challenge, then what is the solution?

I’ll share a story that demonstrates this challenge and solution: A few months ago I was putting a new glow-in-the-dark helmet band on my fire helmet and to do so, required me to remove the front leather shield. I asked a twenty-something female member of my department to bring me a Phillips-head screwdriver. I could tell by the zombie-like look on her face that she had no idea what I was asking for. I apologized that it was presumptuous of me to think that she understood what I misinterpreted to be a seemingly simple request.

I hit the reset button and started over by offering her clear directions to “Please go to the officer’s-side rear compartment of Squad 1 and bring me the yellow toolbox from the bottom shelf.” She readily brought me the requested toolkit, which I proceeded to turn upside down and empty its contents on to the apparatus floor. One by one, we reviewed the basic function and application of each tool, including the Phillips-head screwdriver which I had her remove and replace my leather front with. In full disclosure, I started to fall into the trap of doing it myself until she asked, “Can I try?”

When we were done, she thanked me, stating that she had two older brothers and a father who never took the time to show her the difference between, or how to use a straight blade and Phillips-head screwdriver. That’s a pretty sad statement, if you ask me.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to know the difference between these two similar but different tools – she just didn’t know that I/we had an expectation for her to understand the simple differences. Thus, she failed to meet our expectations, at least initially. Armed with new knowledge and understanding, she exceeded my expectations in putting my helmet back together, probably faster than I could have done it myself. All I had to do was “hold her hand” to get her started with creating the solution on her own.

GREATEST EXPECATIONI tell the participants in my facilitated conversation that if they remember nothing else about our discussion, remember that “The greatest expectation of this XboxTM generation is: to be given clear expectations.” That starts with “Because I told you so!” doesn’t work anymore; and includes giving them clear direction in your application and on-boarding process; in your job descriptions, and in training, education and career pathways.

To most folks, the “I-Generation” tag means “What’s in it for me?” My definition is that “I” stands for the fact that they are truly individuals. Therefore, pigeon-holing them into a stereotype becomes more difficult and broad-brush one-size-fits-all solutions, incentives and motivators just don’t work.

In reality they’re much more like us than we care to admit. We want clear expectations and want to know the benchmarks we have to achieve for meeting those expectations. They want that too.

IMG_1346What makes them somewhat different is that they want to see a third column next to expectations and benchmarks on the chart: benefits. They ask, “What is the benefit to me for meeting your expectation and achieving the benchmark you set for me?” But we tend to get caught up in thinking that these benefits have to all be tangible instead of focusing on whether our benefits are appropriate and meaningful to the individual. And, wanting benefits doesn’t make them bad people; in fact, one could argue that it makes them smarter people than we are.

Historically, my M.O. for meeting expectations and achieving the benchmarks that others set for me is to answer with: “Yes sir, may I have another.” I’m keenly aware of my personality type and thrive on additional responsibility as my reward for a job well done, sometimes to a fault.

Through my observational research in firehouses around the country I’ve come to learn that not everyone is like me, and more importantly, nor do they need to be. While they are labeled as the most education-focused generation ever, this generation definitely doesn’t learn the same way we do. It was actually a participant in one of my XboxTM conversations who discovered this cord between how they play an Xbox game and the wireless way they learn.

Ask any gamer how they play an XboxTM game and they’ll tell you that it is exactly how the previous generations traditionally learned: They start by tearing open the box and reading the instruction manual from cover-to-cover. Not!

They learn, or that is to say they are most adept at learning, in a very similar fashion to the way they play an XboxTM game:

  1. Open the packageXbox Cover8LR
  2. Insert the game into the console
  3. Adjust their personal preferences as to how they’d like to play the game
  4. Start playing the game
  5. Fail
  6. Hit Restart
  7. Continue to play until they complete the first mission (meet the expectation and achieve the benchmark) of the game
  8. Go to the next level (benchmark to benefit)
  9. Continue completing missions (or fail enough to make them quit) until they…
  10. Beat the game!

What can we learn from this?

  1. They are very visual, interactive and first-person learners.
  2. There is tremendous need and opportunity for us to help them understand some key differences between the gaming environment and real world experiences:
  • Firefighting is a multi-user environment – not single player. We call that freelancing.
  • While it’s ok to fail in training – there is rarely a ‘reset’ button on the fireground.
  • “Beating the game” means you get to go home at the end of the call or the shift with the benefit of coming back to play another day.

1461086_762513203766253_559908261_nActor Michael J. Fox is credited with saying, “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” Instead of our traditional teaching method of putting a bunch of skills and knowledge into one big package with just intermediate or endgame validation of their learning process, perhaps we need to break the information we’re sharing into smaller bites, giving them just enough to understand the problem and potential solutions; and then allow them to practice and fail at the associated skills with their peers until they are ready to advance to the next level. Repeat the sequence until they’ve mastered all the levels and can put it all together to beat the “training game.” Lather, rinse, repeat.

Operationally that means we need to observe and evaluate new thinking and methods already in play by other instructors; and it means we need to embrace new technologies that make the training more relevant and realistic to the learner. More hands-on training; blended learning that includes remote online work and virtual interaction with the instructor coupled with intensified hands-on training in a group environment; fire training simulation systems; formal and informal online training are what today’s learners have available to them and it’s what many of them want. Your challenge is to discover which learning method is right for each of them.

But to really get today’s learner’s head in the game requires us to have more than just effective communications skills – we need to have effective connection skills.

As I share on, my personal formula for success in connecting with today’s student starts with great storytelling and adds relevant application of the lessons hidden in context of the story; all divided by a genuine interest in the student.


Remove the relevant application and you’re left with boring war stories. Eliminate the storytelling and the student has nothing to connect to. Lose your genuine interest in the student and no story or instructional aide is going to save you as an instructor. Their “garbage” sensor is a well-tuned detector.

INTERESTING-INNOVATIVEIt’s applying this formula effectively that will take the average instructor to the next level: from informative to interesting to inspiring; and eventually to winning the game of creating lifelong learners by being innovative. To be truly innovative requires every instructor to embrace the information, learning methodologies and technologies available in and outside the classroom and bring it all together for the student.

There is no limitation as to the volume of available training information or access to it for today’s XboxTM generation student. They can watch more videos about reading smoke than I’ve been to working fires in my career. But, what they lack is the relevant experience to correlate and validate the information shared. Just like some of them lack a filter in what personal information they should share online, they also lack the ability to filter out the noise from the nuggets of good training information.

That’s where we come in. The challenge is ours to be the leaders, mentors, coaches (and filters) we’ve always wanted to be but never had the audience for. That audience is here now and they desperately need us to be all those things for them.

During an Xbox Live conversation hosted by Chief Devon Wells' Hood River OR Fire-Rescue Department -- Aaron Dillenbeck, Zane Norris, and Josh Beckner provided me with keen insight into their Xbox Generation, validating my theory that there are exceptions to the rule.

During an Xbox Live conversation hosted by Chief Devon Wells’ Hood River OR Fire-Rescue Department — Aaron Dillenbeck, Zane Norris, and Josh Beckner provided me with keen insight into their Xbox Generation, validating my theory that there are exceptions to the rule.

Once I feel I’ve beat the game of diverting my generation’s perspective that today’s XboxTM generation of firefighters are all “unmotivated slackers” to the reality that most of them are just young people who are truly starved for strong, effective leadership – we discuss how and where to find these hungry, thirsty learners of the craft of firefighting. My suggestion is to find the first “exception to the rule” individual that blows up the stereotype of their genre. Then, arm that stand-out with the support and resources to find more of their peers just like them; more exceptions to the rule.

They’re out there; you just have to go looking for them. Or better yet, create an environment that doesn’t just focus on whether the individual is meeting the needs of the organization, but instead focuses on whether or not the organization is meeting the needs of its individuals. Only then will you realize true and lasting success. To decline this mission means that your fire department is headed for sure irrelevance, obsolescence and even extinction.

As I wrote seven years ago, the harsh reality is that there is no alternate generation hanging out in a parallel universe waiting to swoop down and save the fire service. They’re already here and they have many of the answers to our challenges in connecting with them.

Harsh Reality1xIt’s time we got over it and got on with the business of training our replacements.

Stay safe. Train often.


PS – You can catch my act at FDIC2016. Here’s a sneak peek at what you can expect! I hope you’ll join me there.

Editor’s Note: XboxTM and Xbox LiveTM are registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation