Monday, 12 October 2009

How to get better at just about anything

Performance management is just a posh way of saying: “how do we get better at what we do?”

Assuming that what you do is important to you, your department or organisation, there is enormous benefit to be gained from improving your performance. It’s more fun to produce high quality work, rather than having work corrected or rejected. It’s also more profitable – whether you count profit in monetary or satisfaction terms.

It used to be assumed that our talents and innate capabilities determined how good we could become in a given field, but more recent research has challenged such views. It would be difficult to become exceptional at something for which you have no innate abilities, however. I would never make a world class navigator, for example: my ability to deal with shapes and spaces makes map reading a more exciting venture than was ever intended. But if you are well suited to your chosen pursuit, there is much that can be done to raise your performance above the ordinary:
  1. Practice over a long period of time. The old saying “practice makes perfect” has some truth, although it is not complete in itself. Importantly, there is no evidence that either a child or an adult can perform exceptionally well without experience and practice in their field. Myths about child prodigies conveniently leave out the practice and encouragement they were exposed to from a young age: Mozart’s music and the William sisters’ tennis prowess are good examples. Practice is important – you have to have enough experience in your field to be more than competent.
  2. Stretch yourself when you practice. Once you are competent, and have spent time practicing, just more practice is not enough – you then have to start deliberate, stretching and intensive practice. You have to move from being competent to being very good or exceptional – and that is where deliberate practice is needed. Practice changes from just doing the activity, to do doing the activity better each time. This requires thinking about what can be improved, trying new approaches and finding out what is successful and what is not. This is more tiring, more difficult and requires much more willpower than practising without thought and attention. It also requires breaking out of old habits learnt during the initial practising stage.
  3. Monitor feedback. Be systematic about monitoring your performance, and reflect on what works and what doesn’t. If you can’t or won’t measure it, you can’t improve.
  4. Work with someone better than you. Find someone who is better to make suggestions based on your performance. That is why a personal trainer works so well when you are trying to lose weight or get fit. They are able to stretch your practice, based on your performance, whilst monitoring how well you are doing. Working in a team or with a coach also has a positive correlation to improved performance for the same reasons.
  5. Benchmark your performance. Being able to compare how well (or badly) you are doing is important. This is why working in a team or with a coach works well. The competitive nature of benchmarking also has a positive correlation to high performance. League tables are a good example of this – for the motivated individual, team, department or organisation, league tables provide clear feedback on progress.

Research into expert performance has shown that improvement is slow but gradual for those that work on their performance in a determined way. Such work is not comfortable or easy, rather it pushes the individual to the edge of what they are capable of, thereby building up new experiences and new capabilities. Search and experimentation lie at the heart of expert performance; constantly pushing the limits on what is possible and what is excellent.

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