The Key to Sustained World Class Performance: Deliberate Practice

Everywhere you look, standards are rising.  In business, in sports, in education, in healthcare – really in all aspects of human and organizational achievement – what is considered world class continues to increase.  For example…

  • It used to take 72 hours by plane to cross the Atlantic (1913); it now takes just over six.  The record for a Boeing 777 is five hours 16 minutes (recorded earlier this year) and for a Concorde flight is two hours 53 minutes (1996).
  • The best time for running a mile (men) has improved from 4:14 minutes in 1913 to 3:59 in 1954 to 3:43 today.  World records across all sports show similar trends.
  • Average US fuel efficiency is just over 24 miles per gallon (for all vehicles), up from around 14 mph in 1975.
  • Computer hard drives have improved data storage capacity from 3.75 MB in the 90s to nearly 8 TB (terabytes) today – that’s 2 MILLION times improvement!

Full_History_Disk_Areal_Density_Trend

Humans are getting better, stronger, faster.  Organizations are getting better, stronger, faster.

As customers grow to expect more, organizations – through technology and process improvement – are able to deliver more, which causes customers to expect more, ultimately fueling a never-ending cycle.  The world simply is demanding more.  But in a world of rising standards, how does an organization – a business, a hospital, a school, a nonprofit – become great?  If everything is improving, how does an organization improve faster than the rest?

Last month, I attended Quest for Excellence, the annual conference hosted by the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program.  Keynote Geoff Colvin, senior editor-at-large of Fortune Magazine, shared a provocative talk: “How Organizations Get Great: The Same Way You Do.”  His talk was based on his best-selling business book “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers from Everybody Else” (2008).

Colvin claims that many of the assumptions we have about high achievers (in any subject area, such as sports, music, theater, business, or anything) turn out not to be true:

  • Hard work – many believe that “nose-to-the-grindstone” effort produces high performance.  It’s true that high performance requires hard work, but think of many examples of where hard work just doesn’t produce superior results.  For example, all 30 Major League baseball teams conduct Spring Training, have similar workout regimens, spend countless hours on strategy and fundamentals alike, and yet only two make the World Series and only one wins the championship.  The same could be said of all the aspiring gymnasts who put in hundreds of hours of practice a year, but fail to make the Olympics, win the Gold, or break world records.  Or the violinist who practices daily but fails to make first chair.  There are countless examples in all types of industries and settlings where hard work just doesn’t lead to world class status.  Hard work alone, then, can’t be what’s required to produce excellent performance.
  • Superior intelligence – there are many examples of superior performance from those with lower-than-average IQs.  Muhammad Ali had an IQ of 78 (“average” is 100), but it didn’t seem to impact his ability to become one of the greatest boxers ever.  Ronald Reagan was 105; Andy Warhol an 86; George W. Bush a 98; and even Abe Lincoln a 126 – pretty smart, but certainly not genius.  And Lincoln is considered one of this country’s best, most successful presidents.  People with low IQs can still be successful.  And the same can be stated in the reverse: a high IQ doesn’t automatically guarantee success.  So intelligence, then, also isn’t sufficient to produce excellent performance.
  • Innate talent – many think that world class performance may be given to us at birth.  And, sure, there are some examples of childhood prodigies (the two-year-old who can play Mozart; Tiger Woods, who picked up a club at age three and won majors at 21).  But there are many other examples of world class performance developing later in life: Martha Stewart’s break came at age 41; Vera Wang changed careers multiple times before becoming a designer at age 40; actor Samuel Jackson was 46 when he got his big break in the movie Pulp Fiction; Julia Child was 39 when she published her first book and 51 when she made her TV debut; Sam Walton opened his first Wal-Mart at age 44; and Ray Kroc was 50 when he purchased his first McDonald’s that he then turned into a worldwide empire.  You can be successful without having been born that way.

Indeed, one of Colvin’s central premises is that hard work, superior intelligence, and innate talent – while all important – alone are not sufficient factors to ensure sustainable greatness.  Instead, his research indicates that one factor, and one factor alone, seems to ensure greatness: deliberate practice.

According to Colvin, deliberate practice is not just the amount of time you practice, but HOW you practice.  In his definition, deliberate practice:

  • is designed specifically to improve performance,
  • pushes you just beyond your current abilities,
  • can be repeated a number of times, and
  • includes continual feedback.

My interpretation is that deliberate practice requires purposeful, organized, and designed practice that stretches performance beyond its current levels.  It requires measuring current performance so that learning can occur, and it requires repetition so that mastery can occur.

I think his definition works.  Consider these examples…

  • In sports…Regular practice is going to the driving range to whack a 100 golf balls, but deliberate practice is challenging yourself to practice difficult shots, under difficult conditions, against difficult competition.  In fact, Colvin provides a detailed example of deliberate practice in golf: “hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80% of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day.”  This is what made Tiger Woods so dominant in his first 12-15 years, not because he was born with a golf club in his hand.
  • In music…Regular practice is playing the same musical pieces over and over again, but deliberate practice is challenging yourself to play pieces that are in more difficult keys, have more difficult technical progressions, or somehow stretch your range.  Deliberate practice could also involve recording or videoing your rehearsals, playing back the pieces, measuring the percentage of measures completed correctly, making adjustments, and trying again.
  • In education and learning…Regular practice is doing your multiplication tables over and over again to master the skill by third grade, but deliberate practice is challenging yourself to try word problems that apply multiplication principles or stretching to attempt some early algebra at the same age.  Deliberate practice often is enhanced by having a teacher who can stretch your learning just slightly beyond your current skills.
  • In medicine…regular practice is repeating a surgical procedure 100 times until you master the technical requirements of performing the task, while deliberate practice is trying a proven procedure in a different setting or application to try to solve a problem or condition that hasn’t yet found a remedy.  I personally think this is why some health systems (and some individual physicians and surgeons) are better than others: they continue to test and refine the leading edge of evidence-based medicine, and they have enough cases to begin to prove the science as well as practice the procedure.  That’s why doctors “practice” medicine, I guess!
  • In business or a professional setting, regular practice is going to meetings somewhat on autopilot, taking on assignments that you know you can complete, or giving just the minimum on projects or tasks.  Deliberate practice is taking on challenging assignments, giving a talk on a subject that requires more research or to an audience that might challenge you, or setting a goal that seems aggressive and challenging.  Regular practice is going through the motions; deliberate practice involves continually pressing the boundaries of what you think is possible and of what you think you are capable.

My son experienced the importance of deliberate practice with the middle school baseball season that just ended.  He’s in sixth grade playing against sixth, seventh, and eighth graders.  And while he was good at lower levels of competition, he was stretched trying to hit a few of the eighth graders (some of whom could pitch 85 mph!).  My message to him: stretch yourself in this league and learn how to hit those pitches, and you can compete with any level of competition that you face.

In all cases – sports, music, education, medicine, business, and many others – deliberate practice is a well-defined set of activities that world-class performers pursue diligently.  According to Colvin: “More of it equals better performance…tons of it equals great performance.”  It’s also worth noting that deliberate practice oftentimes involves having a coach (or a mentor or a teacher or an attending surgeon or a senior leader), who pushes you just a little further than you can currently perform all in the spirit of systematic development.

I believe that his thinking absolutely applies to organizations as well as individuals.  In fact, Colvin provides a few examples of how this works.  In the first, a company applied the principles of deliberate practice to improve sales: sales people attended classes to learn about a new product; they then prepared presentations to teach what they had learned; they practices these techniques repeatedly before managers and on video over a six week period; and they then practiced using the product on simulators.  Sales people who participated in the deliberate practice had a customer conversion rate of about 90% versus a conversion rate of about 25% for those who did not do the deliberate practice.

In another example, a company created a mock version of itself – production, packing, shipping.  Teams were given goals, but no instructions on how to reach them.  The company simulated 12 weeks of operations over a five hour practice session a couple of times; employees experimented in trying new solutions to reduce lost revenue.  The company went from a monthly loss of revenue of $700,000 to less than $50,000 after two years of simulation.  What a great example of how practice (through simulation) can lead to (faster) results.

Deliberate practice can be applied to many aspects of organizational performance, such as improving sales, improving hiring and recruiting effectiveness, reducing errors, improving safety, improving productivity, and so forth.  Basically, any process that can be repeated (or simulated) in practice and that can be measured so that continuous feedback and learning are possible can be “deliberately practiced.”

However, according to Colvin, most organizations are “terrible at applying the principles of great performance,” so the impact of more effective deliberate practice on the real outcomes of an organization could be significant.  In fact, organizations who master the science of deliberate practice may indeed achieve superior outcomes faster and gain a notable sustained competitive advantage.

So we have an answer to the question “how does an organization succeed – truly reach and sustain high levels of performance – in a world in which standards continuously rise?”.  Successful, world class organizations need a systematic and repeatable approach for measuring, improving, stretching, and practicing improvement.  Techniques like Lean and Six Sigma are a start; frameworks like Baldrige get you much closer.  But ultimately success requires an organizational culture that supports intelligent risk taking, learning from failure, a willingness to stretch and achieve, and the determination and constancy of purpose to stick with it.  In short, world class performance requires leaders to commit to excellence – and to the deliberate practice required to get there and stay there.

The good news – and perhaps the most profound insight in Colvin’s work – is that the research on great performance reveals what he calls a liberating truth: “high achievement for individuals and organizations isn’t reserved for a preordained few, but is available to us all.”

What other insights do you have regarding how deliberate practice can lead to great performance?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.

Never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

www.performanceexcellencenetwork.org

http://twitter.com/LassiterBrian

Catalyst for Success Since 1987!