Skill-building requires practice. In most endeavors, those who want to improve take this as self-evident. Big tasks are routinely broken into small elements that can be worked on over and over again: scales in music, tight moguls in skiing, certain board situations in chess.
Yet this rarely happens in management, even though we must develop and integrate dozens of discrete skills. Some are almost universally required — for instance, setting goals, coordinating across units, and intervening when a subordinate’s performance is slipping. Others are job-specific, such as critiquing complex project plans and negotiating deals with suppliers and customers.
Any organization can identify the elements that matter most to its managers’ success and help people work on developing them. But a common obstacle is the way most managerial work is organized. There are few opportunities to practice critical skills because many of them are used infrequently. For example, in launching a project, a senior manager will work with her team to set milestones and targets, lay out the work plans, and get the tasks organized and under way. But even if that manager and others on the team later realize that they could have done a much better job with the launch, many months may pass before those same skills must be used again.
So how can managerial work, at least some of it, be organized to permit ongoing practice and growth? To see what’s possible, let’s look at a job that is naturally broken into small work units that people repeat again and again: sales. It’s a good example because sales involves frequent customer contact, and each individual visit is a perfect vehicle for practicing skills. A salesperson seeking to better understand customers’ attitudes about one product design versus another or to strengthen her techniques for closing a sale can interact with real customers in the presence of a coach (the boss, perhaps, or a colleague). Ideally, the coach and salesperson will discuss in advance what skill the salesperson is trying to improve, and even do a bit of rehearsing before the visit. Then the coach can provide feedback on what went well and what to work on next time. It is important for them to make a number of sales calls together soon thereafter, so the new skills can be practiced and reinforced. They can supplement the training with role-playing as well. Feedback and repetition are key. That’s what makes it practice.
At one cosmetics company, managers turned this approach into a kind of game. Together, the associates in one field office were encouraged to set a very ambitious branch sales goal for the following week — one well beyond anything they had done. Then, for a couple of days, they went out on calls in pairs, taking turns analyzing each other’s performance and providing feedback. Everyone’s sales performance was charted on a wall, and special meetings were called to review and recognize progress. They met their ambitious goals, and the practice routine was built into their ongoing sales process. The idea of practicing with partners on creative strategies for improving performance added a stimulating dimension to the job.
Though sales roles offer the most obvious opportunities, with a bit of creativity you can weave disciplined practice into virtually any job or organizational setting. For example, clinical teams from the various hospitals and ambulatory care sites at Northwell Health (formerly North Shore-LIJ Health) come to its Center for Learning and Innovation on a regular basis to sharpen their skills in decision making, teamwork, and communication. There, they have access to high-fidelity simulations of challenging situations, with actors standing in for patients and family members during role-play exercises. They receive immediate feedback after each simulation, then do it again. They can also view videotaped debriefing sessions.
They do all this not only to improve diagnostic and treatment skills generally, but also to tackle specific problems. For instance, one practice program was created to reduce the mortality rate of sepsis, an underappreciated hazard in all hospitals. First, nurses took didactic courses in sepsis management. Then they “treated” simulated patients, with each brief session followed by immediate feedback and discussion of the issues involved. The idea was to learn the right steps in a low-risk environment, rather than correcting life-threatening mistakes on real patients after they were made. Four years after the program was implemented, sepsis-related deaths had dropped by 50%.
The experience of United Aluminum of New Haven, Connecticut, shows how building practice into work as usual can benefit organizations at a higher level. In the 1990s, United’s managers realized that they would have to improve on-time deliveries to be successful. At that time, about 20% of orders were shipped late — and since they provided components that went into other companies’ manufacturing, that was a problem. Although United had invested large sums in various processing control systems, nothing seemed to work.
All improvement projects were run by specialized staffers and outside consultants. But this big-project approach to improvement was inadequate. So people tried incorporating practice-like steps into their work to see if they could make a dent in the problem.
To launch the effort in a dramatic way, senior managers invited everyone in the company to join them in the experiment. They selected a target week about six weeks out and asked everyone to test what they could accomplish in their own jobs in the meantime. They aimed for the radical goal of zero late shipments for that target week. Management was careful to assure everyone that it was an experiment, not a trap, and that the week’s performance would not be set as the new standard.
Everyone participated. Employees, supervisors, engineers, and salespeople created many informal teams and tested dozens of innovations. Instead of a few big “go for broke” projects, people were encouraged to focus even on small aspects of their jobs. The concept was to repeatedly perform those aspects of their jobs, trying to improve each time once they landed on effective methods. When the target week came, 100% of the orders went out on time. The same thing happened the next week. This continuing-practice mode, which was very new for United’s managers and employees, gradually became an ongoing work pattern. They institutionalized the changes that succeeded and kept doing small “practice” experiments throughout the company.
Since that model week, delivery reliability at the company never went below 95%. And today, 20 years after the initial experiment, the company’s website announces, “United Aluminum is proud to exceed 98% on-time delivery year after year.”
The Northwell Health and United Aluminum experiences sound so logical and sensible when you read about them, but it takes considerable creativity — and daring — to conceive and implement this approach to practicing. Apart from the resource investments, a number of psychological obstacles must be overcome. People must move beyond the formal performance review process and encourage many small gains through frequent performance discussions with their bosses and associates.
To benefit most from practice in your organization, you’ll want to focus on tasks that can be tested quickly, that provide immediate results data, and that can be repeated and repeated. That’s where you’ll see exponential gains.