“The more I practice, the luckier I get.” — golf legend Gary Player
Practice is about applying an idea, belief or method rather than the theories related to it. Practice is also about repeatedly performing an activity to become skilled in it.
The value and benefit of practice is taken for granted for performers at the highest level in fields such as sport, music, and art.
Can you imagine teams like the New York Yankees in baseball, Toronto Maple Leafs in ice hockey, Dallas Cowboys in American Football, Manchester United in soccer just turning up on match day? In the arts, would the cast of Cirque du Soleil or the dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet just turn up on the day of the performance? Even the Rolling Stones practice!
Practice and reflection: The missing links
From the sporting world we see that anyone who wants to learn and improve needs to commit time and effort to practise, to notice what works and doesn’t, to keep training until a routine is improved, perfected.
How does this translate to organizations?
Training exists of course – focused on new recruits or “teaching” new skills and technical knowledge that may be required. Skilled execution is highly valued.
But, in most organizations, there is not much focus on practice – and a lack of focus on reflection – on learning from that practice, considering what worked, what didn’t work and what to adjust next time. In organizations, practice and reflection are the missing links between the theory and skilled execution.
What does practice do for you?
Practice enables you to broaden your repertoire, to deepen your knowledge, insight and capability. The brain, once thought to be a “fixed” entity, is malleable. Purposeful practice builds new neural pathways and constant repetition deepens those connections, making that new option a readily available choice.
The result of all this practice?
The seemingly super-sharp reaction time of various ball sports is an illusion. In standard reaction time tests, there is no difference between, say, a leading tennis player compared to other players. BUT, the player is able to detect minute signals which, from years of practice, has led them to read the direction of the serve before the ball has even been played.
It’s this practice that has created unconscious patterns and distinctions that the player responds to equally unconsciously – resulting in the seemingly super-sharp responses.
The power of purposeful practice
Wayne Gretzky, a Canadian ice hockey player, has been described as the greatest ice hockey player ever. His talent captures this attention to the context of a game rather than focusing on distinct actions alone.
“Gretzky’s gift…is for seeing…amid the mayhem, Gretzky can discern the game’s underlying pattern and flow, and anticipate what’s going to happen faster and in more detail than anyone else.”
Purposeful practice is the primary contributing factor (above natural talent) to excellence in sport and life. To be a truly practised at a skill or habit, hours of sustained practice are required – estimated at 10,000 hours. The focus and attention to the practice and learning from that practice is fundamental.
At this level of competence, you have developed what is described as reflection-in-action, where you are critically aware of what you are doing – judging each moment for its suitability against an inner set of criteria – at the same time that you are actually doing the activity. One of the reasons Brazil is so successful at soccer is because most of the footballers played futsal. The smaller, heavier ball demands greater precision and encourages more frequent passing.
Failure comes with the territory
Paradoxically, failure is a key part of success because it is an opportunity to learn. Shizuka Arakawa, one of Japan’s greatest ice skaters, reports falling over more than 20,000 times in her progression to become the 2006 Olympic champion.
Practicing any skill is a full mind, heart and body event. As you build new physical skills, you’re laying down and deepening neural pathways. As you develop competence and strength in a particular skill, you’re building up the positive emotions associated with execution.
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Practice in something can lead to belief in your ability to do it. This principle is one that informs coaches and practitioners working in the area of somatics and embodiment.
How can organizations create the culture and space for practice in order to grow and learn? Individual practice at work is a systemic question – it’s about the prevailing culture, skills and process – as well as individual focus and motivation.
Specifically, how can you establish an environment of striving to achieve the best and an expectation that this will be achieved? To what extent do people receive good quality feedback in a relatively “safe” environment so that they can learn and improve?
Everybody then benefits from the virtuous circle of being with others who are excellent at what they do. This “multiplier” effect impacts across groups and communities.
The 31Practices approach
31Practices is an approach to putting values into practice every day. To become part of the fabric and the way of being (rather than just words in a glossy document), the values have to be practiced each day, by everybody in the organization.
For example, an organization may have the core value “relationships,” and a Practice to bring this value to life, “We invest time with stakeholders to build long-lasting relationships.” On the day of this particular Practice, all employees are therefore very mindful and consciously looking for opportunities to build strong relationships with colleagues, customers, suppliers, communities. The impact Let’s consider this:
“Today, instead of sending an email update, I took the time to call the project sponsor and ask her what she was noticing. I learned that a key team member was in the process of resigning and this information enabled me to prepare a shift in resource. The call took five minutes; it would have taken me longer to compose the email. I felt great.”
Over the course of one month, you live each of the organization’s values through a number of different Practices. Initially, like anything new, you may feel uncertain, but over time, the Practices are repeated, becoming habitual. You will find that you start adopting the Practices more generally, not just the one that day.
This works across small and large groups. Marriott’s Daily Basics program was based on the same principle and operated across 3,000 hotels globally.
The key point is that, just as with sport or other activities, hours of purposeful practice of behaviours and attitudes that are explicitly linked to living core values will result in a strong values-based culture.
What do you think about the concept of “practicing” your values? How do you “practice” your values?
This post originally appeared on CultureUniversity.com and was adapted from Chapter 16 of the Williams and Whybrow book THE 31 PRACTICES – Releasing the Power of Your Organization’s Values Every Day, LID Publishing, which is being released in the U.S. in June 2014.