As many of you know, on Tuesday we’ll launch a new version of our Influencer course, now called Crucial Influence. The materials, the videos, and the instructional design all have a new look, but the changes go deeper than style.
During the development, I spent many hours diving into the most credible social science research about why people do what they do. As I reviewed the literature, I gained fresh insights about familiar content that I’ve been teaching for nearly 15 years.
One insight relates to how leaders think about skill building, perhaps best expressed by the following quote: “I know how to golf. I can’t golf.” You may have to read that statement twice because it sounds like a contradiction.
But the message is this: knowledge is not the same as skill. Knowledge is about what you know; skill is about what you can do. Knowledge is important, but if you are trying to help humans change their behavior, they must have the skill to do it. For us as learning leaders, how many important things do our people KNOW but can’t DO?
The psychologist Anders Ericsson is famous for his decades of work studying high performance. He offers an interesting interpretation of how highly skilled people get there, an approach he calls “deliberate practice.” For instance, Ericsson describes how dedicated figure skaters practice differently on the ice: Olympic hopefuls work on skills they have yet to master. Club skaters, in contrast, work on skills they’ve already mastered. Amateurs tend to spend half their time at the rink texting with friends and not practicing. Skaters who spend the same number of hours on the ice achieve very different results.
Ericsson found that no matter the field of expertise, when it comes to elite ability, there is no correlation between time in the profession and performance levels. But there is a correlation between deliberate practice and high performance.
A veteran brain surgeon with twenty years’ experience is not likely to be any more skilled than a five-year rookie by virtue of time on the job. Any difference between the two has little to do with years of experience and everything to do with deliberate practice. For example, surgeons who receive detailed feedback against a known standard develop far more rapidly than colleagues who repeatedly practice the same old methods.
Certainly, time is required (most elite performers in fields like music composition, dance, fiction writing, chess, and basketball put in ten or more years), but time is not the critical variable for mastery. The critical variable is time wisely spent.
Here are some of the key elements of deliberate practice that you and I need to better implement into our learning and development efforts:
Break It Down
Don’t try to practice dozens of skills at once. Focus on practicing a small part of a larger competency.
Give Full Attention
It’s better to practice for 45 minutes with no distractions than 90 minutes of semi-focused practice. Do short, intense sessions.
Go Just Beyond Current Ability
The sweet spot for improvement is a condition of mild stress. Too much stress shuts down learning, too little stress shuts down attention.
Immediately after a practice session, have a coach tell you what went well and what to do differently. Then practice again.
Crucial Influence has been redesigned with this research in mind. The new course is clearer and more efficient and has been redesigned to help leaders at all levels—from new managers to top executives—solve the challenges they face.
Our job as learning and development leaders is to help people acquire skills (not just learn cool insights). I hope you find our new leadership course and the new trainer materials helpful as you help others improve their lives and organizations.