Practice and Discomfort

by Jo Anne Nelson on September 18, 2013

I recently completed an initiative for a client that is focused on building a sustainable high performance culture and team. Already a fast-growth company with individuals and teams performing at a high level, they recognize that what got them to where they are today will not get them to the next level. To stay ahead of radical growth, they had to up their game.

During the closing working session of the initiative, we asked for feedback—what did we (Aperio International) do well, and what could we do better? A lively discussion ensued. As always, several helpful insights emerged.

One particular comment, however, was one that will not change the way we go about our work. “Why ask us to practice what we are learning during off site sessions? Let us just hear what you have to say and take it back to work.”

The high performance initiatives we lead all involve experiential learning. In other words, we create a way for participants to use what we are teaching them in real time. In the past, we typically asked our clients to help us construct highly relevant case studies for use in these simulations. In recent years, we have learned that incorporating problem solving based on relevant, current real life goals and opportunities is the way to go. Talk about fast and effective learning and change!

Why is that so?

When I encounter new information, I absorb what I hear to varying degrees. Often, I develop expanded awareness and theoretical understanding of the concepts and ideas put forward. But, unless I put them to use right away—put them into practice—my “learning” remains at a theoretical level of generalized awareness.

Awareness, while critically important, is not competency, and competency is not necessarily skill. Competency is built through practice over time with coaching. Skill is the outcome of extended practice and coaching—trial and error.

Imagine watching a sporting event on television, like the recent US Open tennis tournament. The announcers offer assessments about what players are doing well and can do better. They point out specific aspects of individual players games and offer critiques. I listen carefully—maybe even visualize how I could apply the techniques or practices the announcer describes.

A week later, when I get on a tennis court, I am simply not able to apply what I “learned (heard)” to my game. Perhaps I can come close to doing some of the things I heard here and there, but sustainable improvement from listening to a TV commentator? Not going to happen.

The same is true in building sustainable high performance. When individuals employ principles, tools and practices in a safe, classroom-type setting, theory is translated into action and competency begins to be built. We learn from experience—we are and become what we practice.

Now, let’s imagine that the first time we use a specific practice or tool we have been introduced to is in a ‘real’ situation at work. Take for instance, one of our tools designed to help produce optimally effective conversations. What is the risk if it’s we fail to use it effectively? It depends on the conversation and the intended outcome.

If I am coordinating with a colleague about where we are going to have lunch, the risk is, in most instances, low. If we are discussing the path forward for a critical strategic initiative and fail to bring specificity to the conversation or to designate specific promises, commitments, timelines and milestones, the risk is potentially high.

So, even though I might well find it awkward to put concepts into practice within the context of a learning environment, awareness of possibility expands and pragmatic learning evolves. Thus, when I get back to the office and put awareness, learning and experience into practice, I immediately see a positive difference. Risk is lowered, competency advances and sustainable skills begin to be built.

Where do you need to step outside your comfort zone to practice something new? How can you encourage your team members to do the same?

Jo Anne Nelson

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