Sunday, March 1, 2009

Deliberate Practice as an Institutional Imperative

Geoff Colvin's recent book, Talent is Overrated, explores the whys and hows that separate "world-class performers from everybody else".  Most of us might believe that top achievers are destined for stardom, but tons of research indicates that isn't the case.  Top achievers hone their talents during many long hours of deliberate practice that are designed to nurture understanding and stretch ability.  

Deliberate practice can be defined as a sustained -- usually lengthy -- period of calculated effort designed to improve performance.  Whether it's music, a sport, or improving memory, the outstanding performers got that way through sheer, hard work.  This work is typically shaped by teachers, enriched by mentors, and encouraged by parents, teammates, or friends.  While some of the practice may happen in groups, much of it happens on one's own.

Most of the studies supporting the deliberate practice model have been done with musicians, athletes and chess players, because it's relatively easy to document the practice-performance ratio as well as to factor in physical attributes that may help an individual excel.  However, studies of Nobel Prize-winning scientists show that, just as with musicians or athletes, years of study and work were required to first master their fields and specialties before they were then able to add significant new information to it.

Colvin asks, if deliberate practice is the key to individual and team performance, what might any of this have to do with organizational performance?   It would seem a great deal, since organizations are ultimately only as good as the people who lead, manage and nurture them. Yet, there's a definite lack of deliberate practice happening in many institutions. 

The notions of nurturing talent by allowing for the acquisition and practice of knowledge and skills are still considered luxuries, especially by organizations that are struggling to get started or stay afloat.  Yet, Colvin argues, "...the principles of great performance can help improve such organizations to the point where they might actually dare to think about greatness.  That is, the principles can do this if they're applied....Applying the principles is becoming an imperative for all organizations that want to survive."

So, here's an abbreviated list of deliberate practice principles great organizations apply to individuals and teams -- these go for staff, board and volunteers (you'll have to read the book to find out how great organizations apply them!):

1.  Understand that each person in the organization is not just doing a job, but is also being stretched and grown.
2.  Find ways to develop leaders within their jobs.
3.  Identify promising performers early.
4.  Understand that people development works best through inspiration not authority.
5.  Invest significant time, money, and energy in developing people. (Time and energy go a long way when money is at a premium.)
6.  Make leadership development part of the culture.
7.  Develop teams, not just individuals:  be conscious of picking wrong team members, of competing agendas and conflicts of interest, unresolved conflicts and unwillingness to face the real issues.

Photo:  Reach for the Stars by MaryWit 

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