Saturday, December 12, 2009

Using “Deliberate Practice” as a Coaching Technique

In 2008, Geoff Colvin wrote the bestselling book "Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else".

If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend it, although in my opinion, the original article first published in Fortune gets to the point a lot quicker and gives you all you need to know about the concept.

Colvin’s main point is that people are not born with all the natural talent and abilities that will make them great it life. Other than some physical attributes that may give an athlete an advantage in a particular sport, everyone can achieve world-class performance through “deliberate practice” in his or her chosen field - business, music, sports, etc.

Colvin explains, drawing several research-based conclusions, that the secret – deliberate practice – is designed, can be repeated a lot, requires constant feedback, is highly demanding mentally, and isn’t much fun.

He goes on to say, “If it seems a bit depressing that the most important thing you can do to improve performance is no fun, take consolation in this fact: It must be so. If the activities that lead to greatness were easy and fun, then everyone would do them and they would not distinguish the best from the rest. The reality that deliberate practice is hard can even be seen as good news. It means that most people won’t do it. So your willingness to do it will distinguish you all the more.”

Although the concept of deliberate practice sounds good in theory, he doesn’t go into a lot of detail on how to implement it.

Also, if there’s a training program out there on how to implement the concepts, I couldn’t find it.

So how can a leader use deliberate practice as a coaching technique to help their employees improve their performance?

First of all, we need to start with the assumption that the employee really wants to be great at what they do. In other words, the motivation must come from within; the leader can’t force this desire on someone.

Let’s assume most employees really do want to be the best at what they do, and are willing to work for it (I know, that’s a BIG if, but hang in there with me).

Try this step-by-step approach to implementing the concepts of deliberate practice as a coaching technique:

1. Identify 3-4 critical activities that separate great performers from the rest. For example, for a salesperson, it might be the ability to get an appointment, listen, and close. There may be more than 3-4, that’s OK, this is just a place to start. If you don’t know what they are, you might need to interview and study some high performers, read a book, or find some other way to learn from the best.

For each activity:

2. Identity someone who does it really well. Write down exactly how that person performs the activity. Again, you might need to interview or observe them. Identify what they do, their thought process, any anything else that differentiates how they perform the activity from average performers. Using the same sales example, for closing skills, it might be the repeated use of trial closes.

3. Figure out how the activity can be learned. In most cases, according to the theory, there is a “teacher” involved. In the business world, this person could be a trainer, coach, mentor, manager, or expert. In the salesperson example, this could be a sales trainer or the sales manager.

4. Determine how the activity can be practiced repeatedly. Practice activities could include role plays, simulations, and rehearsals. In the sales example, it might include role playing trial closes with the manager or a sales trainer.

5. Set up a feedback mechanism. The person needs to have a way to know how well they did. In the sales example, this could include observing the sales rep with a client and providing feedback after the call.

6. Repeat process for each critical activity.

The coaching discussion:

1. Have the employee read the article ahead of time in order to prepare them for the discussion.

2. Check for motivation and commitment.

For each activity:

3. Describe the activity in detail.

4. Ask the employee to self-assess themselves (scale of 1-10) for the activity. Provide your assessment as well.

5. Ask the employee to set an improvement goal. For example, they see themselves as a “6” in closing, ask them how much better they want to get (7-10).

6. Explain how the activity can be learned and practiced. This becomes your deliberate practice plan (really just another way to get at an IDP).

7. Repeat process for each activity.

8. Agree on next steps.

That’s it! The process may sound deceptively simple – yes, it’s not brain surgery, and probably nothing that you haven’t already been doing in a less structured way. However, in practice, it’s going to require a lot of discipline, hard work, and support from the leader. Oh, and it’s not fun.

Try it out, and let me know what you think.


Aaron Windeler said...


Great, great post.

I just want to say I think this could be extended a bit by, after the practices w/ mentor, coach, manager, whoever, the employee could still use deliberate practice during the real deal. To use your salesperson example, that salesperson might go over the steps that they practiced w/ the manager before going into the sale, and after the sale, to reflect - in writing - on how well they implemented the stuff they practiced (and what stuff they might need more practice on).

For a while in college I had a very geeky competitive-gaming hobby. After each tournament I would go over, in writing, what I did well and what I did poorly & what I would do different in the next tournament. It helped a lot & made each tournament deliberate practice.

Maria Galca said...

Hi Dan,
I love the approach. I've tested it as well with my people and totally agree that talent can be learned.

But I disagree with one point.
I believe the discussion on motivation has to come BEFORE any action.

I've had talks when I started "would you want to focus more on your growth?" and the answer was always "Yes".
But then, when the employee saw there's effort and lots of work involved, they gave up.

So that's why I believe a strong motivation is critical for the "hard work" part of the equation.

Dan McCarthy said...

Maria -
I agree, it would also prevent wasting a lot of time upfront.

Wally Bock said...

Fine, helpful post, Dan. I think there's some danger in trying to concentrate too much on "deliberate practice," which calls for specific activities, high reps, and immediate feedback. That's good for some things, but many other tasks, counseling a team member about substandard performance, for example, can only provide limited help with simulations because of the complex nature of the task and the emotional component.

In those cases, something I call "deliberate improvement" makes more sense. It includes similar components (identified skill for improvement, execution, and feedback). Coaching is even more important there, I think, than in strict deliberate practice. Coaching can identify the key components or sequences in a complex task and is also useful when it's impractical to observe the activity, by guiding a debrief.

Dan McCarthy said...

Wally -
Thanks, this is brand new for me, so I appreciate the additional tips.