More deliberate practice for managers, not less

Professor Phil Rosenzweig of IMD thinks that deliberate practice—using feedback and correction to improve skills—can can help executives perform better. I couldn’t agree more.

However, he cautions against applying the laws of deliberate practice too widely. “We do ourselves a disservice,” he writes at strategy-business.com, “by implying that we can practice our way to success in all circumstances.”

Get the latest Jedi Leadership Tricks

Sign up today for my free weekly update

No spam. I promise.

I beg to differ.

The reality I see in organizations today is not too much deliberate practice, but too little. How many managers do you know who spend excessive amounts of time practicing new skills, asking others for feedback, and reflecting on how to improve? How many are applying the laws of deliberate practice to situations that don’t call for them and therefore producing negative business results?

These problems don’t exist in any of the organizations where I’ve spent time over the past twenty years. In these organizations, managers spend 99 percent of their time in performance mode. Intentionally practicing managerial skills, reflecting, and getting feedback  are, at best, afterthoughts.

I do appreciate Professor Rosenzweig for asking a question that has been ignored in many books about developing talent: how do the laws of deliberate practice apply to management? It is a refreshing and provocative question, one that I’ve been exploring myself over the past several years. If athletes and musicians can become great through repeated practice under the guidance of a skilled teacher or coach, and if the key to this is a cycle of action-feedback-correction-new action, then why can’t managers do the same? How does this simple question transform the way we develop managers inside of organizations?

I’ll be sketching out my thinking on these questions in future posts. For now, I want to use Rosenzweig’s article as a springboard for opening the discussion.

First, to refresh, deliberate practice involves focusing on a specific set of skills with the intent to improve, repeating them at high volumes, getting regular feedback from a skilled teacher or coach, and correcting. Basketball players use deliberate practice to improve their free throw percentages. Captain Chesley Sullenberger used it to land his airplane safely on the Hudson. (Side note: as Atul Gawande has pointed out, Sully and his team also depended heavily on checklists.) And chess players use it to master their games.

If you read the best writing about deliberate practice (like Daniel Coyle’s books The Talent Code and The Little Book of Practice, Geoff Colvin’s Practice is Overrated, or Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers), it’s hard not to get excited about applying these principles to your own life. If, like me, you wake up each day thinking about how to develop people (specifically, executives) more effectively, you start to imagine all the ways of bringing these laws of talent to them.

This place of possibility is where I was at when I read Rosenzweig’s article.

However, his intent in the piece is not to ignite practice but to show its limitations. He argues that deliberate practice can be powerful when “duration is short, feedback is immediate and clear, the order of actions is sequential, and performance is absolute.” For managers, relevant activities include “Presentations to employees. Interaction with key managers. Meetings. Presentations to a board. Negotiations with counterparties. Briefings with investors.” However, “when duration is longer, feedback is slow or incomplete, tasks are undertaken concurrently, and performance is relative—the value of deliberate practice diminishes.” That’s why it’s less helpful for big strategic decisions: “You can’t coach Gerald Levin about trading Time Warner for America Online. There’s no second chance for Edgar Bronfman selling Seagram to Vivendi.”

My beef with this argument:

First, the activities he says are relevant to managers are roughly 98 percent of managers’ lives. In other words, if you use his criteria, you’d conclude that deliberate practice is absolutely essential in almost every situation—the precise opposite of the point he is making.

Second, the decisions that he says don’t benefit from deliberate practice actually do! Although no two big acquisitions are identical, the processes and actions that go into them share many similarities. Most obviously, making a decision involving a huge number of complex variables and stakeholders is something you can practice both on-the-job (through all the experiences you’ve had up to this moment) and through simulations and other forms of direct practice. Edgar Bronfman may not have a second chance to sell Seagram to Vivendi, but his skill at making such a big decision depends largely on all the previous experiences he’s had making big decisions—and what he learned from them.

Managers at every level need more deliberate practice, not less.