Practice is the way

Dear colleagues,

Do you want to become a world-class performer? If so, you'd better get lots of concentrated practice at relevant skills. It may be the only way.

Over the past few decades, research into expert performance - in fields such as chess, music, sport and science - has challenged conventional ideas. The traditional view is that stellar performance depends on natural talent. Researchers have found, to the contrary, that even the greatest performers require years of practice. Genetics may have little to do with it.

Years of practice are needed, and furthermore the practice has to be a special type, called "deliberate practice." This means concentrating intensely on the most difficult aspects of the task, going over and over them until they improve, then moving on to more challenging tasks, usually under the guidance of a highly skilled teacher.

Let's say you want to become a great researcher. You need to practise research tasks for hours per day for a decade or more to be able to make world-class contributions. What research tasks? It depends on the field, but may include reading, analysing, writing, interviewing, experimenting and synthesising. It includes gaining a comprehensive understanding of your field.

The pioneering research on expert performance by Anders Ericsson and others is now being taken up by popular writers - it is being mainstreamed. Geoff Colvin, an editor at the business magazine Fortune, has written a highly accessible book addressing the implications of the research for managers and companies. It is titled Talent is overrated: what really separates world-class performers from everybody else (Penguin, 2010).

Colvin reviews findings from research on expert performance, adding piquant stories about individuals such as Mozart and Tiger Woods. Colvin then applies the ideas to business. His immediate observation is that few workers spend much time practising their skills, as they are too busy doing their jobs.

It is important to note that doing the job may not provide much opportunity for deliberate practice. Chess masters spend far more time analysing games than playing them and concert pianists spend far more time practising than performing. Yet how many teachers do you know who spend more time practising their lectures or practising running tutorials than actually giving them? Most workers fall into a routine and don't continually push themselves with ever more challenging tasks.

Colvin thinks many organisations could be turned into spectacular performers by investing in the right sort of staff training and changing the organisational culture. He gives a few examples within some companies, such as General Electric, but by and large companies do not foster deliberate practice among their employees. Managers are likely to subscribe to the myth of natural talent and seek to employ talented new staff rather than developing the skills of current employees.

When it comes to innovation, most companies actually discourage the sort of practice that is most beneficial. "One of the main reasons why the people in organizations don't produce more innovation is that the culture isn't friendly to it. New ideas aren't really welcomed. Risk taking isn't embraced." (pp. 162-163)

Myths about talent are prevalent in academia, with the assumption that research stars are born with special aptitudes or, in other words, the assumption that some people are smart and others are not so smart. Contrary to this common belief, research suggests that top performance is domain-specific. By practising hard and long and in a suitably focussed manner, you can become extremely good. Training modifies the brain. Being smart is more the consequence of intense practice than the autonomous cause of success.

You can read Colvin's book and get a good sense of what's involved in fostering outstanding performance among managers and in entire organisations. This raises the question: why would anyone want to put in thousands of hours continually practising the most difficult parts of their job? Colvin addresses this question, the question of motivation, as well. Basically, you need to believe in what you're doing and want to do better.

Colvin notes that competition is gradually increasing in most fields, so it takes more years of effort to become great. For example, the average age of Nobel Prize winners in science is increasing. The same applies to organisations: competition is increasing, and flexibility and innovation are more necessary. Organisations that take seriously research on expert performance will have the edge.

Universities mostly persist with traditional approaches to high-level performance, attempting to recruit and reward researchers thought to be talented rather than fostering skills across the board and changing the intellectual climate, which is a crucial part of the equation. Practice to improve teaching and managerial performance is largely neglected at institutional levels. So there is a lot of scope for improvement. As Colvin says, "most organizations seem to be managed brilliantly for preventing people from performing at high levels" (p. 194).

Maybe you don't want to put in the years of lengthy practice necessary to become a super performer, but there's still a valuable message from the research. You can become a lot better at what you do by deciding what you want to achieve and setting up a personal plan for deliberate practice.

It sounds simple. Rather than just doing the job, set aside a proportion of your time to regularly practise the most difficult parts of key tasks, whether in teaching, research or administration. Seek opportunities that push you beyond your comfort zone, for example trying a new teaching technique, tackling a different research area or taking on a challenging administrative role. Obtain feedback and mentoring: instead of hiding what you're doing, show colleagues and outsiders. And keep at it. As the cliché goes, you don't need to be better than everyone else, just better that you ever thought you could be.

17 January 2011

I thank Trent Brown and Ben Morris for helpful comments on drafts.

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