Friday, 9 October 2009

Expertise and expert performance

One of the most fascinating concepts I have come across in a long while is that of Expert Performance. This is a body of work on how expertise is gained, and what sets experts apart from the rest. Studies have been done across a range of disciplines. Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful book Outliers referred to some of this work.

Two fascinating ideas come out of the expert performance research:

  1. It takes an average of 10 years to become expert in something

  2. Practice means deliberate practice, not doing by rote
The 10 years figure is interesting, and provides a guideline for how much time is required to master something. However, it is the “deliberate practice” concept which is most useful to us in our day to day activities. That is practice which has its prime objective of improving performance. It may sound tautological – surely all practice is designed to improve performance? Not so. It is perfectly possible to spend 1 hour practicing French verbs with half a mind on what is for dinner, or whether it will rain. Alternatively, I hour can be spent in a structured way with reviews every 15 minutes so that learning is maximised. Of course the latter is more difficult and more tiring, which is why many of us prefer to keep half a mind on dinner.

Deliberate practice means pushing the boundaries of our practice – expanding our capabilities and working on new areas within our field. It also means getting feedback on how well (or badly) we are doing, and practicing afresh in light of that feedback. To build expertise it is necessary to reflect on the processes and methods used to perform well.

This is important in performance management. Whatever we are striving to do well requires both practice and feedback, both external and internal. It means keeping a record of our performance and improvements. All of which takes effort, but the months and years pass whether or not we are gaining new skills and pushing our professional capabilities forward.

And of course deliberate practice and monitoring progress is as applicable to a business or department as to an individual. The larger the group, though, the more structured the systems need to be for providing feedback.

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