"In life, we’ll face [a] choice again and again... will we be content to cruise along on autopilot or will we scramble and suffer to get better? Will we plod or will we practice?"
Contrary to an idiomatic expression, practice doesn’t result in perfection. Think about it, you shampoo your hair daily and have been doing so for decades. Yet, when was the last time your skill improved? How much closer to a perfect shampoo technique are you today than you were a year ago?
Practice Perfect, by Doug Lemov, Erica Wollway, and Katie Yezzi, sets out to address how you can use practice to improve. Specifically, the book outlines forty-two rules for getting better at getting better. While the primary audience is educators, the principles are universally applicable.
Shift Your Practice Paradigm
"Practice, in this framework, is perhaps defined not as a series of drills and activities and scrimmages but as the opportunity to invent or reinvent ourselves in whatever way we wish, by repeatedly doing these activities with strategy and intentionality."
Practice often carries a negative connotation. Many people view practice as an unnecessary hurdle to clear before a performance. Rather than view practice as a tedious task, the authors suggest readers shift their paradigms to allow for a more expansive definition. This kind of practice is different than mere repetition. The goal is not to repeat an activity for a period of time, but to deliberately focus on a few isolated elements that will improve the finished product.
To generate effective practice sessions, specificity and detail are king. By avoiding generic descriptions and replacing them with specific activities, you can use practice to improve. For example, rather than work on a board presentation, instead plan to practice your board presentation with a coworker who asks a list of anticipated questions you want to be able to answer. The latter produces specific results. While this level of focus requires a greater commitment from you, the long-term gains will outshine the extra work.
Who should practice? Everyone. The salesperson who wants to close more sales, the manager preparing to give performance reviews, the rookie who has to present to the committee. Practice is not just for junior varsity players and aspiring musicians, but anyone who is interested in improving a skill or ability. You can practice preparing your company’s quarterly budget, how to plan your day, or even cleaning the garage.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of practice is it allows you to “encode success.” What does winning look like for this endeavor? You want to have better staff meetings? Think about what those would look like and then work to practice the necessary components. Practice doesn’t have to involve a stopwatch and a whistle. That is the appeal of a broader definition of practice: it can be molded to help you improve in a specific area.
Practice giving specific and actionable feedback
"Saying, You did that well. Great job! is nice. It motivates and inspires people. But we tend to think that's it, that positive feedback motivates people by making them feel good. Ironically, that may be the weakest part of positive feedback."
Feedback is a crucial element of practice. While the act of analyzing performance and determining what one can do better is good, it only solves part of the practice problem. Specific and actionable feedback provides the greatest value to the recipient. For example, your boss tells you to keep doing what you are doing, the project looks great, or a leader instructs her team that they need to give their all on this upcoming project—what is your all? Instead of telling someone to keep it up, explain precisely what “it” is, and how he could improve. The second example leaves the person with an idea of what he is doing well, how to replicate it and where else that skill may be beneficial.
Feedback should play a larger role if practice is to serve as a catalyst for improvement in your organization.
To assist in your feedback makeover the authors suggest building three statements into your feedback:
1. A statement of identification, “help them to see what they did right.”
2. A statement of application, “help them to do it again.”
3. A statement of reapplication, “help them to see new settings in which to apply their skill.”
In the future rather than telling your team to keep it up, construct your feedback from these three statements to make the feedback “a major muscle group of improvement.”
Make practice fun
"Who plays golf by raking one ball after another into the same place while hitting with the same club? Nobody, right? So why do people practice like that?"
Perhaps the ill will most people feel toward practice is its association with a sense of obligation and monotony as opposed to an opportunity to improve? By improving the way you practice through engineering it to replicate how you actually use the skills, it will become more effective and helpful, and chances are good it will be a lot less boring too.
UCLA basketball coach and advocate of harnessing practice to improve, John Wooden observed, “Work without joy is drudgery. Drudgery does not produce champions, nor does it produce great organizations.” So why is practice set up that way? As the authors point out, “Practice should not be a punishment.”
Do something to liven up practice, and people will be more willing to buy into your new paradigm of practice.
“Deliberately engineered and designed, practice can revolutionize our most important endeavors.”
Start from where you are, and if you are not practicing, begin. If you are practicing, reengineer your practices to incorporate actionable feedback. But above all, make practice fun, something that will help you practice again tomorrow.
This alternative practice paradigm has helped me move from rereading my class notes Friday afternoon to simulating a mini exam; a change that forces me to break down the ideas covered throughout the week. By grading my answers I can see which concepts I’ve yet to grasp and reflect those needed topics in my study plans for the following week. While I am still working on making law school “fun”, I will say I prefer this approach to reading through notes without any sense of improvement.
How you could improve with a new paradigm of practice?