The Transformative Power of Deliberate Practice

04-March-2016 11:05
in Process & Performance Improvement
by Admin

It is an oft repeated, seeming truism that practice makes perfect.  However, when we take a closer look at it, the cliche does not stand up to scrutiny in the arena of our professional lives. Most of us spend more time at work than on any other single activity in our lives, having prepared for the world of work through years of formal and informal education.  Despite all this practice, it's pretty clear from even a cursory glance around our places of work that the vast majority of people do not complete their work tasks perfectly.  In many instances, performance would be better described as perfunctory rather than perfect.  In almost every other case, all this time and effort at work has led us to be merely okay at our chosen profession.  Recent academic studies show that on average, experienced business owners and managers do not produce higher calibre outcomes than their less experienced counterparts.  This phenomenon has become known as "The Experience Trap".  In certain fields such as medicine and in financial auditing, the research actually uncovers the fact that people reliably get worse with experience.  Thus, a growing wave of modern research seems to confirm that simply putting in the time isn't much help in transforming someone into a superior performer.

So if practice doesn't make perfect then what does?  Well, according to the experts, something they call "deliberate practice".  If it seems slightly pedantic to insist that deliberate practice makes perfect rather than simply practice, it's important to realise that the difference between practice as most of us understand it and "deliberate practice" are significant and cut to the very heart of what Geoff Colvin calls "the great mystery of the workplace" - why we are surrounded by so many people that have worked hard for decades that remain pretty average at what they do. 

A man called K. Anders Ericsson did much of the pioneering research on this topic of "deliberate practice".  His landmark paper "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance" culminates with the statement "the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain".  So what is "deliberate practice".  It is characterised by several elements, each of which I will examine in turn.

Deliberate Practice is Designed Specifically to Improve Performance

In many aspects of performance in our professional lives, we lack sufficient perspective upon our own actions to know when we are performing perfectly or otherwise.  Thus, becoming very good at anything typically depends upon our having a mentor, coach or teacher to provide us with perspective, specific feedback and goals that lie tantalisingly beyond our reach, causing us to stretch and grow to reach them.  The importance of coaching is emphasised in K. Anders Ericsson's later work "The Making of an Expert" .  In that paper, he cites arguably the most famous violin teacher of all time, Ivan Galamian, who says:

“If we analyze the development of the well-known artists, we see that in almost every case the success of their entire career was dependent on the quality of
their practicing. In practically every case, the practicing was constantly supervised either by the teacher or an assistant to the teacher.”

Research on world-class performers has con?rmed Galamian’s observation. It also has shown that future experts need different kinds of teachers at different stages of their
development. In the beginning, most are coached by local teachers, people who can give generously of their time and praise. Later on, however, it is essential that performers
seek out more-advanced teachers to keep improving their skills. Eventually, all top performers work closely with teachers who have themselves reached international levels of
achievement.  It's critical to your ongoing improvement and ultimate level of professional proficiency that you keep stretching yourself.  This does not mean however that you should put yourself so far out of your comfort zone that you enter the panic zone.  Incremental improvement is what is required.

It Can Be Repeated Alot

If you do something a lot and each time you do it you get a tiny bit better at it then, over time, it's inevitable that you will become one of the elite performers in your field. High repetition is probably the most important aspect of deliberate practice once we accept and internalise the fact that we need to stretch ourselves each time we come to practice.  Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers", suggested that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is required to achieve excellence.  That sounds like alot and it is.  But when we think that most small business owners spend 2000 - 3000 hours a year at work, we can easily see that many more of us could be excellent than currently are.  This only reemphasises the importance of "stretch" and the concept of "deliberate practice".

It's Highly Demanding Mentally

Continually seeking those elements of performance that are less than excellent and then trying one's hardest to make them better puts us under alot of strain.  Indeed, the work is so hard that very few of us can keep it up with any degree of consistency.  Most people cannot manage it for burst of more than an hour or so at a time for a maximum of four or five hours in total per day.  In all of the studies he produced, Ericsson's most frequent comment about "deliberate practice" is that it not inherently enjoyable.  Only those who can discipline themselves to consistently do that which is difficult or unpleasant will eventually distinguish themselves from the herd.

As i've written in an outsourcing article available on the site, a disproportionate level of the rewards in a particular field flow to those who reach the top 10% of performers and this becomes even more skewed as we reach the dizzy heights of the top 1%.  Whilst "deliberate practice" is not the only determinant of success, it does seem to be the primary source of expertise which given the right opportunities will flourish into success in many instances.  It's a challenging but empowering concept as it reveals that the single greatest thing that can happen to distinguish ourselves in our careers and professional lives is 100% within our control.  We can make the commitment to stretch ourselves everyday.  We can seek out teachers, coaches and mentors who can help us design our "deliberate practice" and give us invaluable feedback.  We can commit ourselves to the thousands of hours of disciplined hard work required to excel.  We can look back on our lives and careers with no regrets, kmowing that we have done all that we could do.

Part of our service here at Continuous Business Planning is to help small business owners apply this concept of "deliberate practice" in their lives and businesses,  We can help by extracting immediate, valuable feedback from the marketplace about your performance and working with you to continuously stretch yourselves and your performance to new heights.  If this is a service you think would be valuable, do not hesitate to contact us today.