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Practice makes perfect. Or so they say, albeit often rather glibly. We don’t like to quibble but that ‘perfect’ sounds like a tall order, especially if we’re talking about workplace skills, capabilities or behaviours. If, however, we are prepared to settle – and it would surely be realistic to do so – for ‘better’, then that is almost certainly achievable. And allowing a little lassitude is not necessarily a bad thing. As Samuel Smiles wrote in the genre-creating Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct (1859): “he who never made a mistake, never made a discovery.”

The bigger quibble is with the word ‘practice’. We all know people who have performed the same task for many years – whether it be something as humbly domestic as cooking dinner or a service that is usually considered to be more ‘professional’ – with no detectable sign of improvement. The key is not that you practise, but what you practise and how. Or is it all down to motivation?

Alicia Clegg, writing in the FT earlier this year, commented on a range of techniques that are being explored ‘to make training stick’, not least of them ‘olfactory effects that mimic the odours of the emergency room’. Simulating during training, real-life sights, sounds – and even smells – might make the training more interesting: they might even build some conditioned responses. But learning, though it is essential, isn’t sufficient to deliver expert performance.

Malcom Gladwell’s often repeated assertion that 10,000 hours of practice will deliver mastery ignores the most important finding of Anders Ericsson’s original 1993 research, namely that it’s the quality of the practice that matters, not the quantity. In the words of the original research paper, co-authored with Ralf Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Romer:

“People believe that because expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance the expert performer must be endowed with characteristics qualitatively different from those of normal adults. […] We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”

So-called deliberate practice with immediate informative feedback focuses on improving performance, not just learning, and it demands high levels of learner motivation. It also demands the presence of someone skilled not just in monitoring and analysing performance, but in giving constructive feedback and ensuring that it is clearly understood and its implications are explored.

People in ‘life and death’ occupations – such as surgeons, airline pilots and engineers in the nuclear industry – are (thankfully) very familiar with repeated practice, but I would hazard a guess that the best among them will be those whose drive to succeed and enthusiasm for practice is fuelled by feedback from someone who shares their passion.

Indeed, if the richest, most valuable and most objective feedback comes from observation, it’s important to recognise this is not a description of self-observation, no matter our level of determination. Even if we were not unavoidably too familiar with ourselves to see ourselves dispassionately, we cannot gain sufficient distance from ourselves to see our actions and behaviours objectively.

In offering insights and observations as much as advice, the coach’s contributions as a third-party are the possibility to see ourselves afresh or from previously overlooked angles, and the opportunity to see different possibilities in the world around us and our relationship to it. When they are included in the process of turning what we have recently learned into what we now do, a coach can challenge us to tackle barriers or obstacles that we cannot identify for ourselves, or have shied away from tackling. (This is, of course, dependant on the coach’s ability to earn the trust of the coachee and to create the rapport that enables issues to be explored productively – especially where the ‘obstacle’ is some aspect of the coachee.)

In making training stick, there are over sixty strategies that have been shown to help, but they share an important characteristic: they are dependent for their varying levels of effectiveness on the learner’s level of motivation. As any secondary school teacher could probably confirm, people have to care in order to learn. If the valuable role of third-parties – in the form of coaches – is one lesson for organisations that are wishing to increase the level of learning transfer and application that their L&D interventions enjoy, then motivation provides another.

While motivation is largely personal and individual, the role of inspiring or enhancing it is probably a task that is best not outsourced. As Matthew Syed, author of Bounce and former Olympic gold medal winner, put it in a 2011 Guardian article:

“Most of us have been on the receiving end of an inspirational speech. Usually it is delivered by a former Olympian at a company conference and is all about the big M: motivation. It is sometimes eloquently delivered, and often fun to listen to, but most people leave the room wondering how 30 minutes of biographical information about a 7ft rowing champion is going to help them back in the office.

Nobody would dispute that motivation is a key driver of performance, but this knowledge does not help many of us understand where it comes from. Listening to a sportsperson speaking about their own personal journey may be uplifting, but how is it going to leave a lasting and usable legacy in terms of how you approach your job? It is almost insulting to think it could.”

Like the content of learning programmes, motivation must be relevant.

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