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Accelerating Performance Through Deliberate Practice

Accelerating Performance Through Deliberate Practice

Leadership is a full-contact sport. Like any sport, mastering it physically, emotionally and cognitively is what leads to success.  Deliberate practice, the art of conscientiously working on an area of growth and seeking continual feedback and improvement in your practice, is an important part of achieving inspired leadership.

Too often, success is left riding on the shoulders of extraordinary resumes, with the expectation and assumption that impressive skills and expertise are enough to drive organizational performance.

The reality is, they aren’t.

“Experience can be overrated. Talent can be irrelevant. Mindless repetition is a waste of time. Deliberate practice is the key to improvement and, ultimately, real achievement.” Gary Conkling

Regardless of form, mastery comes with the systematic and intentional discipline of practice- sports, dance, art, writing, and especially the often overlooked sport of leadership.

Michael Jordan - Deliberate Practice

Be Like Mike

Michael Jordan is undoubtedly one of, if not the best, basketball player to ever live. Many believe that his talent and physical skills are what propelled him to greatness, but for those of us who have children that were obsessed with basketball and Jordan’s career, we know better. We have read countless tales of his relentless practice discipline, the thousands of hours he spent before and after every practice to continue making foul shots until he could sink them with his eyes closed. He was often the last person on the court.

Good Is Not Good Enough

We know that it is easy to forget how important deliberate practice is. When things are running smoothly, performance is “good”, and there are no urgent fires to put out, it can seem like the drumbeat of an annual performance review, offsite meeting and monthly employee newsletter are enough.

However, as we move into 2018, we know good is not good enough- today’s business environment demands excellence.

Rapidly changing markets, technology disruption and the challenges that come with up to four generations of employees working shoulder to shoulder, are only a few of the conditions facing leaders and their teams today.

The increasing pace of change necessitates that companies both inspire and develop their people through a commitment to the deliberate practice of leadership.

Deliberate Practice Is Intentional Practice

Humans are hard-wired to seek consistency and predictability. With consistent action and intention, you can achieve growth and evolution. Curious by nature, we always seek to practice something, and if we aren’t aren’t intentionally choosing what and how to practice, it becomes a significant missed leadership opportunity.

We know that one of the most powerful ways to lead change is through tiny shifts in habit. According to Anders Ericsson, a pioneer in the study of expert performance, “in pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way.”

Practice In Your Stretch Zone

Leaders often call upon the infamous 10,000 hours rule to inspire commitment to a practice discipline. Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, this rule suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field.

While “putting in the reps” is important, we believe that it is not just the quantity of practice hours that determines success, but what is practiced during those hours. Effective deliberate practice couples intentional effort with real-time feedback and assessment on a skill that stretches you outside your comfort zone. When individuals practice what is most challenging for them, performance success is accelerated and enhanced.

Michael Jordan didn’t just practice foul shots, he practiced them from the angles on the court that were most inconsistent for him. He didn’t just practice dribbling the ball, he practiced dribbling with his non-dominant hand. It is in deliberately and intentionally practicing what is hardest that performance excellence can be achieved.

InspireCorps Lead Facilitator and Coach, Katie Kilty, Ed.D. says that “deliberate practice is about intentionally trying differently versus trying harder. It involves understanding the edges of your comfort, stretch and panic zones in an effort to practice within the stretch zone:

“Leaders who practice deliberately know how to artfully challenge themselves when they are edging towards complacency or the comfort zone in a way that increases capabilities for improved performance. The art lies in exercising compassion and intention in the challenge versus provoking a panic zone response founded in comparison and over compensation. This is the essence of deliberate practice in leadership.”  

The beginning of a new year is the perfect time to design a new plan for deliberate practice. Just identify one or two capabilities that if practiced more intentionally, would generate the most significant performance improvement.


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