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Can “deliberate practice” make you better at your job?

Imagine two kids on the playground, and they both dream of a career in the NBA.  Both love basketball, are super motivated, and both decide they are going to practice for an hour every day to pursue their dream.

The first kid hits the playground every day to practice, leisurely dribbles and takes shots, and retrieves his own shots.  If there are friends available, he plays a pick-up game.  He never misses a day.

The second kid also practices every day, but he takes a different approach.  A friend agrees to help him.  He works on his dribbling, and works on shots from different parts of the court.   His friend helps him retrieve balls and records which shots he makes and which ones he misses.  Afterward, he talks with his friend on how he can improve.

At the end of six months, which of the two kids do you think will have improved more?  Clearly, the second kid is much more likely to advance.  In fact, the first kid may not improve much at all, despite the fact that the two spent the exact same amount of time practicing.

In their book “Peak – Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,” Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool introduce the concept of “deliberate practice,” a special type of practice conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.

Deliberate practice is done in four steps:

  1. Set a goal
  2. Receive instruction
  3. Practice
  4. Receive immediate feedback

As you do repeat this pattern, you stretch a little each cycle, and thus you continuously improve. Ericsson and Pool have applied this training technique to elite athletes and musicians.

Deliberate Practice at Work

Can those of us that are not professional athletes or musicians use deliberate practice to improve our job performance?  As business and technology leaders, can we use deliberate practice to build elite teams?

We absolutely can!  Agile, iterative development frameworks such as Scrum provide a good base (at lucidLIFT, we’re building software that applies deliberate practice to software development teams).  However, we can’t succeed without first making a few culture changes:

  1. Focus on Results, Not Effort. It’s tempting for leaders to focus on and reward long hours at the office, but effort doesn’t necessarily lead to results.  Instead, focus on and reward outcomes.
  2. Focus on Facts, Not Intuition and Feelings Intuition and feelings are important, but they can be misleading.  Look for key process indicators, collect data, and use the data in your feedback loop.
  3. Learn by Doing.  Training classes are good for distributing new concepts and information.  They are terrible at building skills.  Create feedback loops that you can use while you’re getting work done to build a culture of rapid learning.
  4. Embrace Mistakes.  Mistakes and failures offer a gold mine of information, but many managers and leaders don’t benefit from it.  They punish mistakes, either overtly (bad performance review, working the weekend to “catch up”) or covertly (emergency meetings, public embarrassment).  This encourages people to lie or obscure the truth.  Real corporate learning grinds to a halt.

Deliberate practice can definitely improve team performance at work, and these are just a few ideas on how we can embrace it.  I’d like to hear your thoughts.  What have you done to improve results in your organization?

Mark Strange
Mark Strange
Mark is a 20+ year software development professional and agile enthusiast, and the co-founder of lucidLIFT.

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