Anything you can do ...
I've heard it said that "An amateur practises until they get it right. A professional practises until they can't get it wrong!" And I think this saying conveys some sense of what distinguishes perfomance at the highest level and how to achieve it.
It also brings me back to the topic of "modelling" that I've talked about in previous issues and causes me to reflect on just what "practising" really means in the context of management skills.
First of all, I think it's useful to draw a distinction between what can easily be taught and what can't.
If you want to learn how to use a software package then you attend a course or read the manual. When you've learnt what some of the commands do, and worked through a few examples, you can probably go on and use the package, gradually learning more as you practise. And perhaps you'll be motivated by the desire to complete some task that the software makes possible.
In contrast, what if you want to be able to manage your team more effectively but have reached the limit of what you can do to support and motivate them? In this situation, attending training or reading management books won't help. More knowledge of what to do doesn't equip you to actually do it. It just reveals more things that you seem to be incapable of putting to use.
So what's the difference between these two cases?
It seems to depend on our capability to use information. In the literature on Knowledge Management, there's a distinction drawn between explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. The former can be written down or represented as numbers, pictures or some digital format. The latter can only be partially represented in these ways, if at all. Tacit knowledge includes elements of how to process information to achieve an outcome and these processes are often unconscious. So you don't know (aren't conscious of) how you do it. Terms like , "insight", "natural talent" or "wisdom" are often applied to this sort of knowledge. And because tacit knowledge often involves a physical component, the idea of "muscle-memory" comes in as well. (Learning to drive, to write or to type depends on physical actions that become automatic - almost as though the knowledge of how to do them is embedded in the muscles.)
How then can you acquire new tacit knowledge?
The same way you mastered the other unconscious skills that you already have:
- Identify the steps (going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence)
- Concentrate on carrying out the steps, one at a time (from conscious incompetence to conscious competence)
- Repeat and refine until you can do it easily and reliably (from conscious competence to unconscious competence)
You probably appreciate how this process could describe something like learning to drive. But what about a management skill such as "influencing"?
There are two main difficulties here: identifying the steps and repeating them enough times.
The first part is difficult because there seem to be intangible elements to what an effective influencer does. Copying their words and actions isn't enough.
The second part is hard because you presuppose that "influencing" is an ability you're born with. So, it doesn't occur to you that it's something to be practised. And do you really want to fail publicly, many times, as you go round the trial-and-error loop?
In his book "Modeling With NLP", Robert Dilts identifies eight components in the process:
- Determine the specific issues, contexts and skills to be addressed.
- Select the individuals to be modelled.
- Set up and carry out modelling scenarios and procedures in order to engage the capabilities or performance to be examined and gather the necessary information.
- Identify relevant patterns in the behaviour, strategies and beliefs, etc., of the individuals who have been modelled.
- Organise the patterns that have been discovered into a descriptive and prescriptive structure; i.e., a "model".
- Experimentally test and refine the model by trying it out in the relevant contex(s) to see if it achieves the desired results.
- Design effective installation/intervention procedures and tools in order to transfer or apply the key elements of the model to others.
- Measure the results obtained by applying the model.
Step 4 in this sequence is critical. It involves going below the surface words and actions into the values and beliefs that the model person brings to the context and then on to the mental patterns that the model performs.
These patterns, known as "strategies" have to be broken down into smaller steps by answering the questions, "How do you know when to start?", What do you do?", "How do you know when to end?" and "How do you end". The acronym TOTE is used to denote the sequence: Test --> Operate --> Test --> Exit.
For example, a strategy for dealing with a meeting that has run out of steam could be:
TEST: See people slumped in their chairs, hear negative words, spoken in monotones
OPERATE: Call a break and speak to key individuals. Change the agenda.
TEST: See people upright and animated. Hear positive voices
EXIT: Resume the meeting and move on
The "Operate" part might well be broken down further until the critical elements that make the whole strategy effective are understood.
In addition to the detailed strategy, the values and beliefs that underly it's performance are also important. This is because others respond to tiny, unconscious variations in your movements, phrasing, pace and tonality. These reflect your emotional state and your "attitude", i.e. what's important to you and what you believe about yourself, the other people and the situation. (A procedure for eliciting values was outlined in December's "Change Work".)
The other key part of the modelling process that's not obvious is step 7: "installing" all of this in yourself or someone else.
The basis for most of the techniques used here is the idea of "mental rehearsal". It's really much more powerful than it sounds because the unconscious mind doesn't distinguish between imagined events and "real" ones. So, to imagine acting out a particular scenario is just as effective practice as actually doing it. With the major benefit that there are no witnesses if it goes wrong! Only when you're ready do you move on to trying it out with other people.
A particularly useful variation on this is the "New Behaviour Generator" that's described in my report "How to be Brilliant - at Doing What You Dread!" that's available on my website. Also on the site is a case study called "Performance Management" where I modelled a very effective team leader. If you'd like more detail on this, please e-mail me.
This has been a longer article than usual so thank you for persisting and getting this far! I'll see you next month.
Note on spelling for anyone interested: The Concise Oxford Dictionary generally prefers not to double the final consonant in verbs like "rivet" when extending them to "riveting" or "riveter". However, it makes exceptions in those cases where single letters would "strike every reader as Americanisms"! So, I follow the COD with "modelling" and Robert Dilts, an American, does it his way.