The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice”. Practice that is explicitly intended to improve performance. That reaches for objectives just beyond your current level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.
The research is backed up by what great performers have been showing us for years. Winston Churchill, one of the century’s greatest orators, practiced his speeches compulsively. As concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz said, “If I don’t practice for one day, I notice. If I don’t practice for two days, my wife notices. If I don’t practice for three days, the world notices”.
All very interesting but it leaves us with a problem: how do you practice business? Some elements of our jobs in daily business life are directly practicable. Presenting, negotiating, reading & analysing reports, deciphering technical data can all be practiced. Still, they aren’t the essence of great technical or managerial performance. That requires making decisions and judgements with imperfect information in an uncertain environment, interacting effectively with people and handling unexpected outcomes. Can they be practiced?
Well yes they can – but not in the way you would practice a Beethoven symphony. Instead it’s all about how you do what you are already doing – you create practice in your work, which requires a few critical changes. The first is approaching any task with a new goal: Instead of merely trying to get it done, you aim to get better at it. Anything one does at work, from the most basic task to the most exalted, is an improbable skill. Armed with that mindset, people go at a job in a new way. They aren’t just doing the job; they’re explicitly trying to get better at it in the larger sense.
The second is feedback. Feedback is crucial and getting it shouldn’t be a problem in business. Yet most people don’t seek it; they just wait for it, half hoping it won’t happen. Without it, as Steve Kerr says, “it’s as if you’re bowling through a curtain that comes down to knee level. If you don’t know how successful you are, two things happen: One, you don’t get any better, and two, you stop caring. In Deloitte, they ask all management partners to spend a minute with their staff after every client meeting to provide feedback. This helps the manager fulfil more of a coaching role and harnesses the power of feedback for the individual. Think about what opportunities you have as a coach to give feedback and do it regularly, not sporadically. For most people, work is hard enough without pushing even harder. Those extra steps are so difficult they almost never get done. That’s the way it is. If great performance were easy, it wouldn’t be so rare.