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What does deliberate practice for human skills look like?

By Phil Allen

Posted 30/11/2021

When we set up Practice Room Online (PRO) we did it from three informed positions:

  1. My own experience as a L&D leader over 20 years. I came to the realisation (later than I should have) that the only thing that changed how people performed back in the workplace, when learning new skills, was practice. It didn’t matter which model we trained them in (all models are wrong, some are useful!); what mattered was how much they had practised those skills, received effective feedback from experts, and practised again.
  2. My business partner’s experience. James Larter has run our sister company RoleplayUK for 20 years. He knows the value of ‘live learning’, using corporate actors. He has seen people perform better after working with an actor, trying out different strategies in a safe space. And he knows, that to make this sort of learning effective, it has to feel real – and working with a trained actor, is far more real than role-playing with Steve from Accounts!
  3. And most importantly, we were informed by Anders Ericcsson, the Swedish Psychologist and Author of Peak. Ericsson’s concept of deliberate practice was popularised (bastardised!) by Gladwell’s 10,000 hours in his book Outliers. But you need to go back to what Ericsson was really talking about – deliberate practice – to really understand how we get better.

So, what does deliberate practice look like for a manager trying to develop as a leader?

Well let’s start with what it isn’t.

  1. Deliberate practice isn’t reading about it, watching a video on it, or even listening to an expert in a training room (virtual or otherwise). If I asked a non-swimmer to do 2 hours of reading and video watching on how to swim and then dive off a boat in the middle of a lake, they would, rightly, look at me as a complete nutter. And yet isn’t that what companies do when they buy that e-learning package, with curated content on “how to be a better manager” and expect their managers to just perform better?
  2. It isn’t ‘failing live’. We often say to people as part of training programmes, “Now go and practise this new skill with your team”, when what we are really saying is “Now go and fail live”. Deliberate practice doesn’t happen when we get on Centre Court, it happens on the Practice Court. Deliberate practice has to be done in a place where getting it wrong doesn’t matter – and that includes practising with Steve from Accounts in front of all your other colleagues from Accounts
  3. And, it isn’t doing it in front of a mirror, or recording yourself. Watching a recording of yourself giving a presentation can help you to see the bits you want to improve, but how do we know that those are the bits that will make a difference? Deliberate practice needs an expert coach to give you feedback. Someone who can tell you “When you said that it made me feel this”. Someone who can then ask you “How did that feel?”, “What would you like to do differently?”, “How might you do that?”. We are just not very good at giving that feedback and coaching to ourselves.

If we draw upon Ericsson’s, James’ and my own informed positions, how should we incorporate deliberate practice into developing leadership skills?

Ericsson talked about two key elements – structured practice and an expert coach. For practice to be structured it needs to have a specific goal, it needs to be focused, it needs immediate feedback and it will be difficult and uncomfortable. An expert coach is someone who knows what good looks like, who is good at analysing behaviour and giving feedback, and can help you to improve.

From James Larter’s experience of working with corporate actors for 20 years, he knows that deliberate practice has to feel real and that actors are required to enable people to suspend disbelief for a period of practice. When working with actors, people say that they feel the same emotions they would if they had been doing it for real. We often hear feedback of, “They were exactly like Simone. That’s just how she would react”.

How often have you run, or been in those ‘triads’ with colleagues on a training course and you are trying to practice that difficult conversation with Steve from Accounts, who isn’t behaving remotely like Simone. So, we often end up just talking about what we would do, not practising it. We don’t practice because it doesn’t feel real enough.

Finally, from my perspective of 20 years of developing people, I truly believe that people have the capability within themselves to get better and to perform better; all they need is feedback and encouragement to try something different. That alone will develop their capability and their confidence. They don’t need to be taught about the GROW model, or how an ESTJ interacts with an INFP. They don’t need to understand the intricacies of Transactional Analysis. As any coach knows, the best solutions for an individual come from that individual themselves, a coach is only there to help them find those solutions. All they need is the space to try out their own ideas, get feedback on how that worked and to try again and get more feedback on what worked better.

I believe that all learning and development MUST incorporate deliberate practice based on Ericsson’s concepts. And if we are honest with ourselves as L&D leaders, too often we believe that content – whether expertly delivered by us, or through e-learning packages – will solve the problems of poor leadership behaviours. It doesn’t!

Leaders need a space to work on those behaviours, that doesn’t impact upon others in the organisation. Interacting with others is a contact sport, so leaders need a ‘sparring partner’ who can make them feel it’s just like the real thing. And finally, leaders need to be given feedback on how they are coming across by a person who knows what good looks like and who is not worried about the giving that feedback (as a direct report who has twice given my boss feedback, I can tell you that it is very often a career limiting move!).




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