Getting results

A few weeks ago, I wrote an email where I stated “You get results from what you pay attention to.” I was actually talking about management, but I am realizing that the statement applies in all aspects of life. It sounds banal, almost trite, but capitalizing on this assumption require discipline and focus.

My personal experience is that the behavior of managers informs their employees as to the values of the company. No matter what the vision statement says, it is day-to-day behavior that matters. Even if the avowed goal is to create the highest quality product, when managers spend every meeting asking about reducing cost, their employees will focus on cost reduction. If a manager asks their team every week about the status of project A and never mentions project B, which project will the team be working on? This was the point I was trying to make when I wrote that original email. This is something I want to remember when I am a manager, that my employees will concentrate on the things I show interest in – if I want something to get done, I have to convey its importance to them, and be able to prioritize their efforts so that I am not asking them for several conflicting goals.

Wes’s comment on my amateur post started me thinking about the wider implications of this statement. He said “I have also observed that I’m only truly good at things I truly love, because those are the things I enjoy doing even when there’s no one paying me to do them.” That comment helped me make the connection between my observation about management and previous thoughts on passion. We pay attention to the things we love doing, the things that deeply matter to us. For me to get good at something, I have to love doing it. That post from last year explained that part of the reason I was leaving programming was that I didn’t have passion for it, and because of that, I was never going to be great at it.

So let’s start picking up the implications of the idea that improving at something requires paying attention to it. David Shenk’s blog mentions the concept of deliberate practice, which he describes as follows:

“Deliberate practice” is qualitatively different from ordinary experience. In ordinary experience, an individual is exposed to certain task demands, spends time attaining proficiency at that task and then plateaus, more or less satisfied with his/her level of competence. Under these passive circumstances, more time spent with the same task after the plateau will not significantly increase skill-level. The skill level becomes autonomous and stable. In contrast, under a regime of deliberate practice, the individual is never quite satisfied and is always pushing a little bit beyond his/her capability, actively and incrementally expanding that capability. (Ericsson, 2006, chapter 38).

Practicing to get better is different that just practicing. To get better, we have to identify our weaknesses and attack them. We have to pick areas on which to focus. It requires a reflective quality, where we think about why we were not able to achieve what we wanted, and what we can change next time to achieve that goal. It can be painful and frustrating, but that’s what it takes to achieve greatness.

I can think of several examples from my personal history. I tend to reach plateaus in my skill set because I fail to practice deliberately. For instance, in ultimate frisbee, I just get out there and have fun running around and have hit a plateau because of it. Because I’ve never been part of a team, I’ve never done the deliberate drill work necessary to improve my skills to the next level. And having done exactly such work on tennis and volleyball teams in the past, I know what is required, but have not been willing to put in that level of effort. To get really good at something, I would have to endure the pain and drudgery of drills and deliberate practice to break through to the next level of mastery rather than dilettante. But instead my tendency is to move on to the next activity to get back to the low effort/high return portion of the learning curve.

This self-reflective quality of deliberate practice is essential for managers as well. I’m reading Gerald Weinberg’s Becoming a Technical Leader on the recommendation of a friend, and Weinberg’s test on whether you are ready to become a leader is to spend five minutes a day writing in a personal journal. I was initially taken aback, but he describes the experiences of others who were similarly skeptical, and how it ended up helping them. So I’m going to try to keep to that, and taking the concept of deliberate practice into account, I’m going to try to focus on things that I have not done well that I would like to improve, and ideas that I have encountered about management that I would like to remember. Because it’s personal and deliberately short, I think I will have more success with it than with my occasional efforts to write a daily blog post.

A classmate introduced a similar concept to me. He keeps a personal scorecard of the various aspects of his life and career, and each week he rates himself on how he is doing on those aspects. It forces him to be quantitative on the progress that he is making, and to reflect deliberately on his priorities and the implicit choices he is making on where he is spending his time. It lets him identify when he’s hit the plateau and decide how he should attack it. He’s used it several times in the past to identify when he’s gotten all he’s going to get out of a job and move on.

So I’m going to be thinking about these concepts. Figure out where I want to be getting results, and therefore what I should be paying attention to. Spend time on self-reflection in order to identify areas of improvement, and then determine how I can use deliberate practice to attack those deficiences. Of course, the problem is that it requires self-discipline to do all of these things and that’s one of the areas of improvement. So we’ll see how things go.

8 thoughts on “Getting results

  1. I had a meeting with folks at work on Friday about educational games, and one of the points I brought up is that failure is where the learning happens. You don’t learn anything by getting things right; you learn when you make a mistake and then figure out how to correct it. (This is where many bad educational games go wrong; they’re afraid to let players fail, which is exactly the benefit of a game: you can fail without negative consequences.)

    Anyway, I wonder if that might be part of the generalist/specialist difference: specialists are more comfortable failing at an aspect of things they already have some skill with (and thereby polishing out their weaknesses), while generalists are more comfortable failing at things they have no skill with (and thereby filling in their deficiencies).

  2. I’m delighted to be referenced in this post. I’m also delighted to find that we have found an area of thought in which we’ve both walked more or less the same footsteps.

    Some related thoughts, roughly in the order in which your post triggered them:

    …part of the reason I was leaving programming was that I didn’t have passion for it, and because of that, I was never going to be great at it.

    I made this exact same observation about myself the better part of a decade ago, and it ultimately resulted in my life getting enormously better. Though my “current job” doesn’t pay as well as the sorts of jobs I’d have were I to have stayed on the track I was on ten years ago, that is in itself a misleading statement, since I would not have maneuvered into those jobs regardless; they are not sufficiently interesting to me for me to have given their pursuit my full attention and ability. And that says nothing of the relative lack of happiness I’d have enjoyed had I forced myself to follow that path as best I could.

    By contrast, I spend a WHOLE lot of time and energy on my current pursuits, and that suits me fine. Honestly, I feel rather spoiled. I spend large swaths of time and energy doing things that look for all the world like “screwing around.” But it doesn’t take much of a shift in perspective (and a little bit of good ad copy) to recast those activities as extraordinarily productive and valuable to both community and pocketbook.

    Your reference to deliberate practice reminds me of a recent Scientific American article which I have seen referenced many times recently, by content if not by name. The idea is that ten years of what you call deliberate practice is a (and in fact the) necessary precursor to mastery in most fields. This is an enormously powerful idea, I think, and I’ll let it go at that (and will print a copy of the article for your personal use, as I scanned it at the time).

    The weekly personal scorecard is such obviously powerful mojo that I fear to use it. What evil will I discover!? Whose idea was it, and will you be my support group as I attempt to wield such potent magics for the first time?

    Right on!

  3. Ah. One other thing. You mentioned the idea of spend(ing) five minutes a day writing in a personal journal.

    This is a variation on the theme I first was introduced to in Julia Cameron’s excellent book The Artist’s Way in which she advocates as part of her program writing three pages a morning. Any pages at all, but fill ’em up. Truly excellent practice, and one I really ought to re-adopt.

  4. Hmm. A post appears to have disappeared into the ether…

    Regarding Beemer’s post: I love what you say about the generalist/specialist division. Keep that meme alive, man. It’s going to come back to us; I just know it.

    Also, to pithily summarize your other point: “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” Google says that Don (or Dan) Stanford originated this quote. All I know is that I’ve used it for years, and I wish it were more widely circulated.

  5. This definitely works in your personal life as well as in business. When I set myself to paying attention to certain aspects of life (by writing them down and measuring them), I find those goals take care of themselves, whereas the ones I don’t pay attention to, or don’t commit to writing and measuring, don’t progress at all, even if I think about them and strongly desire them.

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