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Friday, July 22, 2011

How to make experience count? (Version 2)

(I am writing this blog again, because of the feedback i have got on my last blog. Many readers told me that they found it very difficult to 'apply' the ideas of 'deliberate practice' research that i talked in the blog. So here is another attempt.)

Typically, when we learn something new, we go through the learning phase and try hard until we master the activities well enough. For instance, take the example of driving. Until we learn to drive in the traffic, drive up on slopes while stopping, and can park well in small paces, we practice hard. As soon as we reach that stage, which the researchers claim to happen in approximately 50 hours of practice, we stop working on it further. We reach our comfort zone. That happens with our job experience too. Be it presenting to the customers, persuading a difficult subordinate, or convincing the superior on a tough plan; we all learn enough to do the tasks reasonably well, and then remain at that level. That is our comfort zone. And once we reach that comfort zone, we just go through the paces.We stop learning from our experience, because we stop practicing.

Researchers(1) however have found that the excellent performance - whether in sports, music, surgery or writing - is produced only when one goes beyond this comfort zone and practices deliberately. Contrary to the popular belief, it is not innate talent that produces excellence; it is this 'deliberate practice'. Despite the huge talent of Tiger Woods, for instance, he could achieve his excellence only after he practiced deliberately for 10,000 hours ( which researchers call as 10 year rule). His innate talent did not help him reduce the hours of deliberate practice; instead it helped him start early in his practice. In other words, excellence is produced through experience of a deliberate type. It is the way performers practice, the areas they practice that produces excellence.

For corporate professionals, who develop only through experience, learning the tools of deliberate practice is not just necessary; it is almost essential. Let us understand how to use this research for excelling in corporate world.

Excellent performers, be in chess, surgery, writing or sports and music follow these four rules that are useful for corporate professionals:

1. Excellent performers know their 'areas' of practice
: Excellence is produced not by practicing on anything: they practice very very specific things. Often, it is very different than what is considered typical. For instance, expert violinist concentrate on practicing 'solo' instead of performing in actual orchestra or playing with colleagues. Sports person work more on off-the-game routines instead of getting match practice ! Expert cooks practice on the activities 'before' cooking, not on the activities 'during' cooking.

Corporate professionals must find their 'areas of practice' to become better programmers, sales managers, design engineers or financial analysts. For instance, application developers have to practice understanding 'non functional' requirements of an application before they start coding. Every individual needs to find his 'areas of practice'. For instance, a sales professional may need more practice on 'understanding customer specs', while another sales professional may need more practice on 'convincing customers'. Coaches and mentors are helpful in identifying the right areas of practice.

2. Excellent performers practice for the future role, not just for the current position: In other words, excellent performers do not wait for the problem to come to them.They anticipate the next mountain to climb, and prepare themselves for it by practicing before hand. If you have watched the career of Rafael Nadal, you would have observed the application of this rule.

I am always surprised to see that corporate professionals miss this rule more often than not. Even when they are waiting for promotion ( developer to module leader, or sales officer to sales manager) they rarely think through and work on practicing the new role before hand. They just walk into the new role unprepared, suffer a performance dip and spend disproportionate time and effort to undo the damage.

3. Excellent performers perceive more than average performers: Excellent performers do not have high memory to perceive more. When chess pieces were kept randomly, researchers found that excellent chess players remembered only 7-9 positions of chess pieces, which was similar to average chess players. But if the board of a actual live game was shown, excellent chess players remembered much more ( > 20 positions) than average chess players ( about 10). In other words, excellent chess players had higher 'long term working memory' because their mental model remembered the 'interactions of pieces'. Because excellent performers perceive more, they react faster, they notice smaller differences, observe warning signals faster than average performers.

The same is true of Jack Welch or Jeff Immelt. They are known for their fast reflexes and reading between the lines. But they also perceive more things because their mental models of 'business elements' ( how industry functions) and 'management elements' ( how their company functions) is more accurate ( and therefore reflects as-is reality better) than average performers. Business element model is also called as domain model in general parlance. Building this domain model and perfecting it regularly is therefore a critical practice for becoming a top class corporate professional.

Depending on one's hierarchy, every top corporate professional has a mental model of both - domain and management - to function excellently. A highly effective project manager, for instance, also has a rich working model of 'project management' to manage a project effectively!

4. Excellent performers seek constant and quick feedback to improve: Without quality feedback, there is no improvement. This is one of the basic rules that differentiates average from excellent performers. In sports and music, getting objective feedback is possible, even though difficult.

In the knowledge work of corporate professionals this is even more difficult. At lower heirarchy, one can innovatively seek feedback from colleagues, superiors, or even through usage of HR tools. I know of a senior manager in a multinational company who seeks feedback from his subordinates every quarter in a formal setting. But at higher levels, getting feedback is almost impossible without learning 'meta-cognition'- it is the ability to see yourself performing, while you are performing. Coaches can be helpful not only in offering accurate feedback, but also in designing 'crucibles' that will offer better quality feedback.

Are you using these four rules in making your experience count?

(1) Dr Anders Ericsson's work is described in many of his books. For a short summary, read this article.

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