Troop Program Death Spiral!

spiralPerhaps “Troop Program Death Spiral” is a gratuitously dramatic title but it describes something that does happen. Got your attention, though, didn’t I?

How and why do troops get off track and lose Scouts? There’s a predictable sequence of events that spiral down into a crash.

Scouts are never the problem, it’s the way we work with them that causes problems.

When we sign on to volunteer and one of three things happen –

  • We attend training, work at understanding our role and evaluate current practice against what we learn.
  • We  don’t get trained, don’t really learn our role, and/or adopt bad practices that were in place when we signed on.
  • We assume that we know our role and carry on regardless or we are working with people who assert that they know what they are doing and we follow along. Either way we resist examining and improving on what we are doing.

Nearly every Scouting volunteer will hear something about the patrol method or the virtues of a ‘boy led troop’. They may even commit themselves to understanding and applying the patrol method.

When they apply the concepts and practices of the patrol method the first results are almost always disappointing from the adult perspective. Scouts seem to be incapable, incompetent, or lazy. Scout’s efforts are disjointed, chaotic and fall far short of creating the orderliness and efficiency adults imagined they would. Instead of looking at this state of affairs as a positive indication of growing and developing leaders this ‘disappointment’ is viewed as a failure of the patrol method as an idea.

Once adults become convinced that the patrol method won’t work they take over and run things in an efficient, orderly, way.  When adults run things they find there’s less trouble and uncertainty. The Scouts will be happy to have things taken care of, they won’t complain, they’ll have fun and won’t have to do a whole lot.

Boys like that sort of thing for a time. Eventually, though, they get bored.

Unless the adults are able to come up with more new and even more entertaining experiences the Scouts start to leave. Adults get upset when the Scouts don’t properly appreciate what is being done for them, this turns to frustration, hardens into resentment, and leads to rulemaking.

That attitude drives a lot of Scouts away, and when Scouts leave adults become even more resentful or upset. Adults are already fatigued from trying to hold things together and doing everything so things continue to spiral down.

Naturally one way to avoid this spiral is getting trained, but that’s not enough. Beyond just passively receiving ideas we have to test those ideas, pick them apart, and learn about them. We apply them, observe the results, assess our understanding, and then try again.

Stick with the process, strive to understand it, and you’ll avoid the spiral.

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  1. Jamey says

    So, something we’ve stumbled into that seems to work pretty well is for our Troop to go help the local Cub Packs with their “Move Up” camping trip. It’s one night (I bring the Scouts out the night before). I had ‘experienced’ Scouts sign up (most were 12 with a few 13 year olds) and they taught all the stations for the whole Pack, helped parents set up their tents, directed parking, taught Webelos how to do the flag ceremony, etc, etc. It did take me on a couple of occasions telling Cub Leaders that they shouldn’t do anything a Scout could do. A few listened. I almost had to choke only one Cub Leader for constantly interrupting a class being put on by two Scouts. All-in-all it was highly educating for Cub Parents to see just what a 12 year-old could do. We got a ton of compliments and better yet at least 2 Second Year Webelos stated that they wanted to be Boy Scouts where they were planning on dropping. So the short advice: find many opportunities to unleash Scouts upon Cub Parents so they can start to see the results and what we’re after.

    • says

      Great advice Jamey. One of our local Cub Packs asked me to do a presentation for them on camping. I enlisted my Scouts to do it. They did a great job and it showed the parents of the Webelos what they had to look forward to. I know I had at least one of their Scouts join our Troop because of that presentation.


  2. James Chaplin says

    Simple comment,
    Failure is good in moderation, but with every failure there MUST be mentoring of the youth leadership. I watched a unit (Venturing Crew) that for seven months, the youth leadership failed to organize a single event, and the adult leader’s responds was for them to figure it out themselves (no mentoring or coaching) and membership started to drop.

    Just before the unit was about to fold, I took the adult role, and started with more “adult” lead to make things happen and re-spark interest in the youth. And this was immediately followed by handing back the management and leadership to the youth with mentoring with each piece, but not lecturing.

    • Clarke Green says

      One of the persistent misunderstandings of the patrol method is that the adults either have absolutely no role or must run everything. This, of course is what makes things even more difficult to explain, because there are so many shades of gray, and there’s an art to knowing when to step in and when to step back.

      It’s wrong to dump everything on the youth and say “we are going to do the patrol method now, best of luck!’ and it’s wrong to only dole out tiny pieces of responsibility and hover over the result.

      It takes time, patience, experimentation, and striving to get it right.

      This isn’t a switch that you turn on or off, it’s a process that has many branches and crossings.

  3. says

    We’re having this sort of problem, only the “we” I speak of is a Sea Scout Ship, not a troop. I’ve been trying to convince the other leaders that we should put the onus of planning and organizing on the Scouts, but it’s been a tough sell.

    Any recommendations for getting Sea Scouters to let go and let the Scouts lead?

    • Clarke Green says

      It’s just so much fun to lead that adults sometimes don’t realize they are taking up all the opportunities! Maybe you can try appealing to their sense of fairness? “You know when you do that it means one of our Sea Scouts is denied the opportunity?”

      • says

        LOL… Actually, the person who is not letting go is already aware he has that problem–he just can’t seem to stop himself. We are a fairly new Ship (we haven’t even been chartered a year yet), and he feels like the Scouts aren’t “ready” to take the lead, especially since there have been missteps with some of the things the Scouts have been put in charge of. I’ve talked to him on a number of occasions about stepping back and letting the Boatswain (equivalent to the SPL, if you’re not familiar) be in charge; he usually agrees with me that that is what we should be doing, but he can’t seem to actually do it.

        Over the weekend I got an invitation from him to an adult leaders’ meeting in which he wants us to hash out the rest of the summer, which was prefaced with “Yes I know this function needs to be transitioned to the Sea Scouts but we’re not there yet and the program is languishing”… I don’t know if it’s fortunate or unfortunate that I’m busy every night this week.

        • Greg 'Luigi' Blackshaw says

          If you honestly believe that you’re Patrol Leaders aren’t ready to run a full planing meeting on their own, then run it with them.
          Please note I didn’t say for them.
          No matter how green your PLs are, there’s no valid reason why they shouldn’t be at your planing meeting.

          We also have all our APLs at our planing meetings too so they can learn what they will be doing when they become PLs.

  4. Greg 'Luigi' Blackshaw says

    We have it a bit different in Australia.
    Our Scouts age out at 15 and move on to Venturers and you can’t be both.
    This tends to mean you get a Patrol Leader functioning at a level you are happy with and 6mths later he/she is gone.
    We have been trying to push more and more responsibility for the running of the Troop onto the Troop Council but after reading this blog for 4-5mths now I’m starting to think that us not stepping back fast enough is our biggest problem.
    My Scout Leader is afraid if the Patrol Leaders try and fail they won’t try again.
    I’m now turning to the idea because we are standing under them with our hands out to catch them they don’t think it matters if they fail because they know we’ll fix it.
    I think a couple of failures will do our Patrol Leaders good.

    We just came back from a hike that was(on paper) a complete failure.
    We were supposed to do 18km over 2 days we did 5km on Sat and nothing on Sun.
    The Scouts still went home with big smiles on their faces and learned a massive amount.

    • Clarke Green says

      Youth leadership in Scouting is designed to fail, failure is good, failure is a sign of progress – yes really!

      A good analogy is learning to tie a knot, there are many tries before one get’s it right. You try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, these failures are important to the learning process.

      Leadership is no different, it’s skills, knowledge, and experience working together. You can get knowledge from a book or a talk but you can’t get experience or skill from anything but trying and failing.

      We adults are responsible for a quality program. We think that means a smooth-running, efficient series of activities that are predictable and well-managed. In focusing on that we miss the opportunity for our Scouts to go through this process of leadership development by actually making decisions and exercising real responsibility.

      • says

        So, “Failure is always an option” in scouting?
        Hmmm, sounds like a catchy leader motto. :)

        However, unless there is feedback and instruction, scouting “failure” is worthless, right?

        • Clarke Green says

          No, Wrong.
          Failure is not an option, it is a necessity.
          Sometimes feedback is needed, and instruction is needed even less than feedback.
          What is needed is reflection, that’s asking questions and not giving answers. One of the more difficult things to get is that Scouts are held back more by over-instruction than by a lack of instruction.

          • says

            Well, I’d say success is also a necessity and an option. But I think we’re saying the same thing here. We’re not setting these boys up to be failures. We’re setting them up to learn from their mistakes when they have them.

            I think we both mean, when their is failure (and it will come), we’ll be there to help you work you’re way through it. And yes, reflection is the preferred method. But that would include feedback and instruction, no?

          • Greg 'Luigi' Blackshaw says

            My job now is to get the Scouts to see where we failed and were we succeeded.
            So they can build on what was leaned on the weekend.
            Like how important having back up plans are. Ha ha.

        • Big 'Papa C" says

          About the NEED TO FAIL, I think this is an important lesson in life. That failure, when addressed correctly can bring a positive. When I was part of another organization, we had a “Planning Guide”. Part of that guide was ‘before, during, and after. In the ‘after’, we would review what went right and what went wrong and come up with ideas to correct the wrongs, as well as, improve the ‘rights’.

  5. TAHAWK says

    We tell adults that The Patrol Method should be followed – is even “essential.”

    Yet B.S.A. has no current, coherent statement of what constitutes The Patrol Method. The elements are still in the literature and website, but they are scattered here and there in B.S.A. pronouncements. Moreover, the elements are typically not specifically identified as parts of The Patrol Method. One wonders how serious B.S.A. is about The Patrol Method when a simple statement of The Patrol Method has not been published in many years and when statements of suggested practices are made that contradict The Patrol Method.

    Let’s start, shall we? The patrol comes first in all things. Boy Scouting is to be primarily experienced as a member of a patrol, not a troop. The patrol’s activities usually take priority over troop activities if for no other reason than the fact that a troop is not a patrol.
    The patrol is the team. The troop is merely the league in which the team plays the game of Scouting.

  6. Pete Paras says

    Great concept. I have been trying to get the patrol method implemented for 7 years. No luck. Not giving up though. I have done everything except hold it myself. Tried doing it before Scout meeting, no go. Have trained Scouts in detail on how patrol method works. Every week I ask if they held their meeting? Have they done anyting? NO. I have the same comments from other Scoutmasters, they can’t get their Scouts to do PM either. Will try something different this Aug when we resume weekly Scout meetings. We have gone from 8 Scouts to 30, so were are very active, but the PM is a bridge too far.

    • Clarke Green says

      Seven YEARS? I don’t think we are talking about the same thing – there’s no trying the patrol method, you either do it or you don’t. It is not a bridge too far for any troop by any means, you have missed something. The patrol method is not simply dividing Scouts into patrols and telling them what to do. It’s a great deal more than that.

      • Peter Paras SR says

        Clarke, would love to have you come out and get this going. maybe you can have more luck than I.

  7. says

    Believe in what Clarke says. A year ago I took over as Scoutmaster of our troop. Prior to that I was an Assistant Scoutmaster for three years and the troop was primarily adult-led. I had taken the training but I wasn’t in charge. Our troop grew in those three years but attendance was off at the troop meetings. Also, some of the older Scouts dropped out as the new Scouts came in. Something didn’t seem right. We had some pretty good camping trips and participation in those was good. However the adults and Scouts mostly did things together.

    When I became Scoutmaster, I switched to the patrol method. I told the boys that it was their meetings, their trips and their Courts of Honor. I told them I wasn’t doing their dishes anymore. I told the parents that their boys are amazing and not to underestimate their abilities. I created patrol totes with the necessary equipment for each patrol to handle their own cooking (looking back I probably should have involved them with this part). We had our first patrol camping trip last September. I worried that it wouldn’t work but I trusted those more experienced than me (thank you Clarke!). I had pretty low expectations but It was a resounding success! It wasn’t perfect but it’s never going to be. Right Clarke? You learn to live with the “less than perfect” and sometimes you get surprises.

    The boys don’t want to go to meetings and on camping trips to be taught stuff by adults. They spend their days in school doing that. It’s frustrating for adults to stand back and let the boys teach skills to the other boys when we think we can do it better. We feel we need to impart our Wisdom on these boys. I’ve been criticized that my 12-year-old Scouts aren’t learning the skills that Scouts should learn. Do they really need to know how to build a fire in the pouring rain at 12? Let’s start with just building a fire and then teaching others how to build a fire. Some will master those skills, others will not. What skills are they going to need as adults? Probably not how to survive in the woods. They need to know how to survive in life by taking responsibility, interacting with others and learning leadership skills.

    I still have adults that question the methods that I’m using and think that we need to sit with the boys during troop meetings so that we can help them and keep them focused. The troop meetings are a bit chaotic and disorganized. The patrol leaders are frequently not prepared (or as prepared as WE think they should be) and they rush through their patrol portion of the meeting so they can go outside to run around and play games. Sometimes it seems that they’re just sitting around and not doing much. BUT, for most of our meetings we have close to 100% attendance. Many boys CHOOSE to skip other activities (including sports) to come to meetings and go camping. They cover enough in the meetings to prepare for the camping trips. And they learn by doing things that Scouts do. I’ve seen incredible growth in all of the boys in the last year. My SPL has grown into a caring and responsible servant leader.

    So, don’t sell your Scouts short. Embrace the patrol method. It’s a lot of work at first but the rewards are great. Don’t listen to the naysayers.

    I don’t run the troop meetings.
    I don’t run the PLC meetings.
    I don’t run the Courts of Honor.
    I don’t run the troop.
    Stay positive.
    The PLC does all that. I’m just here as an adviser, a mentor and a friend.
    It’s been one of the best years of my life.

    Sorry to ramble on but I wanted to make sure Clarke knows how much of an impact he has had on my life and our program. Just think of all the others that are our there that haven’t said anything. Thanks again Clarke!

    I’m off this weekend to our pre-Jamboree camping trip. It’s going to be an incredible time!

    Ed Bruce
    Troop 38
    North Falmouth, MA

  8. says

    Excellent thoughts. The best defense against this phenomenon, naturally, is having the correct adult role in place in a troop, and instilling it in new adults when they join. Don’t let them see it being done wrong. I’ve often said that the first thing you need to do with Cub parents who cross over is brainwash them. I tell them to forget everything they know about Scouting! What is a continuum for the boys is a huge leap for the adults.

    Training is essential, because it lends an imprint of authority onto a system that adults new to Boy Scouting may be skeptical about. But that training needs to be reinforced back in the unit, where the newly-trained adults can see it put into practice.

    What can really set someone off on the wrong foot is coming into a unit where the veteran adults (usually untrained) are very confidently and authoritatively doing it all wrong. New adults mimic the veterans and may never learn or accept the proper role, or it can take years to realize it.

    • says

      I work with Cub Leaders / Parents at the District Level, and what I’ve been trying to do is educate them while they are Webelos Leaders. This is the transitional period where, IMHO, the District and Troops should be slowly bringing the Cubs into the Boy Scout fold. There’s a reason Webelos are required to camp with Boy Scouts and visit Troops to get their Arrow of Light. It’s not just to see which Troop you like, but to begin the cross-over process from cubby to boy-led.

      I think more work at the National/Council level needs to be done in this regard. The sticker-shock from Pack to Troop freaks some parents out. Prior education might alleviate that.

      • Cathy says

        This is also the reason Webelos are in patrols. Weblos should be functioning as a patrol in a troop. Of course they don’t go camping once a month but they should have their patrol programs and patrol meetings as troops do.

        The information is out there, it’s available from your council……we adults are the problem and the kids are the solution. :)

        • says

          But the problem we run in to (at least in my neck of the woods) are the Webelos leaders who don’t understand the patrol method. Most leaders come in as Tiger Leader where they plan everything…all the way up to being a Bear Leader. Then some on-line training and read a few of the Webelos manuals and they’re supposed to know how to run a patrol? I bet it hardly ever happens unless the leader has an older boy in Scouts or was a Boy Scout himself. It’s more than a Patrol name, flag and cheer, right?

          Then bam, they’re in Boy Scouts and everything is caotic. Parents are confused and dismayed at how “poorly” run a troop is when, in fact, it might be doing very well. It’s just that boys aren’t adults yet and this is part of the growing up process.

          Webelos-to-Scout transition is THE major issue (IMHO) in Scout retention (and maybe poorly run Troops) and I just don’t see anyone tackling it. Sure, the Cub changes to the Scout Oath and Law are a step, but Webelos Leader Training is a must.

          And getting Troops to be more proactive in courting Webelos is another must. Around here, it seems like the good troops don’t worry about it because they naturally get an influx of new scouts. And the poor/mediocre troops just don’t think about it…or have time to think about it.

          This aspect of Scouting can’t be left up to the Boy-Led concept. Let the boys devise and lead their fun events, troop meetings, etc. But new scouts and scout retention just aren’t on their RADARS and should be proactively led by the SM, ASMs and Troop Committees, IMHO.

          • says

            Having run Cub leader training in our district for several years, it was always appalling to me how few Webelos leaders we had attend training. We’d get a lot of Tiger and Wolf leaders but most Webelos leaders figured they were already “trained” and didn’t need to come back. I would usually conduct the Webelos leader breakout session, and in addition to presenting the material in the syllabus I’d emphasize the changing adult role, and more importantly, the “why”. Let the boys make some of the decisions. Give the Denner some real responsibility, such as starting and ending the meeting and handling the transitions. Go on outings and go camping! Too bad it fell on so few ears.

  9. says

    This is excellent. I’m going to use this a LOT in the near future.
    Is there a document or specific training that covers this in more detail that you can point me to for further reading and insight?

    • Guy says

      One of the common resources, for patrol method information, is to go back to the Scoutmaster handbooks and patrol leader handbooks that “Greenbar Bill” Hillcourt wrote, such as the 3rd ed. SM Handbook. They are a wealth of information. Hillcourt’s “patrol method” was an adaption of BP’s (actually, Roland Phillipp’s) “patrol system”. You can find those documents on a Google search.

      This topic interests me greatly — we’re on year 3 of rebuilding a troop that had been an adult-led advancement-oriented troop method program. Things are going well, but still aren’t all the way to where we want them to be.