OK, OK, I guess the secret’s out. The best-selling books “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell and “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin and the new hit TV comedy series, Modern Family have cited the conclusion of extensive studies:
It takes 10,000 hours of dedicated effort to become an expert performer in any field.
Sustain thought-filled practice
From these sources as well as my own 12 years of consulting work, I have found that the key to great performance can be summarized in three words: thought-filled practice. That comprises executing a simulation of the actual performance while consciously observing the outcome.
The six steps of thought-filled practice include:
If you want to be an extraordinary performer or develop extraordinary performance in others, each step is critically important, regardless of the industry or size of the organization.
1. Select a role for which you have passion and strengths
You don’t very often get to choose the job you want. If you want to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you don’t get to walk in and just take over. However, you do get to choose the roles you turn down. As you move through your career, be careful to select roles for which you have the passion and raw talent to do well. If there is a certain role you ultimately want to occupy, work to enhance your skills, knowledge and experience to increase your chances of getting it.
2. Identify the five critical aspects of that role
… And now the hard work begins.
You are in a role for which you have passion and strengths over the long term. You’ve already got the job, so you don’t have to worry about having what it takes to get it. It’s decision time. Do you want to become an expert performer or settle for something less?
If extraordinary performance is your goal, then let’s move forward.
Think about your role and gather input from other people who have occupied it. Identify the five most important characteristics of the role. Don’t assume that you know what they are right away, and definitely don’t assume that every person within an organization embodies the same five critical qualities.
“The Score Takes Care of Itself”is a marvelous new book by the late Bill Walsh, who was the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He explained how he or one of his direct reports worked with every assistant coach, player, administrative assistant and staff member to identify the critical aspects of the person’s role. He wrote, “Here’s one small example: After careful analysis, the assistant coaches identified 30 specific and separate physical skills — actions — that every offensive lineman needed to master in order to do his job at the highest level, everything from tackling to evasion, footwork to arm movement. Our coaches then created multiple drills for each one of those individual skills, which were then practiced relentlessly until their execution at the highest level was automatic – routine ‘perfection.’ ”
Since the purpose of my professional life is to work with managers to achieve great performances, I’m going to offer my thoughts on how sustaining thought-filled practice applies to them. However, this process also applies equally well to every role imaginable.
I define a “business manager” as “a person who is responsible for the results on a P&L statement.” In this sense, the word “manager” applies to business owners, CEOs, executives and managers. As an example, I’ve identified five critical aspects of a business manager’s role :
If you are a manager and feel there are other, more critical aspects to your role than what I have listed, then go with yours. The key is to maintain discipline on which key aspects you are working to improve. Five is a very good limit to keep in mind. Don’t try to do everything. Within those five, there will be a wide variety of details that need to be focused on.
3. Create simulations of the actual performance that let you focus on improving one or more of the role's critical aspects.
… And now the work intensifies.
If you want to improve your own performance (or the performance of others), you need to create simulations of the actual performance that can be repeated many times.
In many ways, this is the common-sense step. If you want to be a great pianist, obviously you need to practice an actual performance again and again. The same is true in sports. I live in St. Louis, which means I’ve seen Albert Pujols’ entire nine-year Major League Baseball career. He has the most perfect baseball swing I’ve ever seen. Guess what Albert Pujols does throughout both the off-season and the regular season? He works on his swing over and over and over again.
But what’s true for musicians or athletes may not be so intuitive for business managers.
Business managers simply perform, don’t they? They don’t have time for simulations in order to figure out how to improve their performance, do they?
This is how you outperform your competitors: Make time to practice, rehearse and refine your expertise.
4. Gain relevant, timely feedback on the simulated performance from a skilled observer
The problem with practicing on your own is you don’t know what you don’t know.
You don’t realize how fast you talk or how you fold your arms in a menacing way while you’re trying to listen empathetically. You need someone outside yourself who can give you prompt, honest feedback .
In the military, this is called the “after-activity review.” AARs are extremely important to improving performance among soldiers. The key is that people are willing to step up and be honest about what they saw and heard during the simulated military conflict. Without this intensely honest sharing of opinions, commanders and front-line fighting forces may simply not realize the mistakes they are making.
Search for people who will be honest with you and can do so in a skillful way that increases your chances of improving your performance. People who listen to your voicemails, read your e-mails, observe your body language, and give honest feedback are valuable. Carefully select people to gather insights from on even the most minute details of your performance as a leader.
5. Consider the feedback and make adjustments
… And now it’s time to let go of your ego.
You’ve asked people for their honest opinions of your performance. In some cases, your boss gave you feedback without being asked for it. Your first reaction might be to ignore the input or to fight it and try to prove that it’s wrong. If that’s the case, then your second reaction had better be to consider the input.
Considering input does not equal doing exactly what you’re told. Considering input means evaluating what you’ve heard and deciding what you will do with it. Will you implement exactly what you were told, will you tweak the advice a bit and apply the variation of the advice, or will you decide that this is something you have considered and have chosen not to do it that way?
6. Repeat steps three to five for 10,000 hours
… And now for the step that separates the world-class performer from the mediocre.
So far, nothing is too surprising. Identifying the smallest details of a performance and working to improve them by receiving honest input from a skilled observer is a process we’ve all used since we were children. It’s how we learned to read and write and tie our shoes. We did something, someone watched and gave us feedback, we made adjustments, and we got better. It’s not complicated.
Performance improvements take time. A great deal of time, as a matter of fact.
The process is not sexy, but it can have an enormous effect on your career and your organization’s results over the long term. Don’t be fooled by its simplicity. The greatest challenge to becoming an expert performer is applying the process of thought-filled practice over and over and over for 10,000 hours. Ten thousand hours of thought-filled practice takes roughly 10 to 14 years. (If you’re maniacal, you might get there in six to nine years.) No matter what, the “sustain” part requires a long-term effort.
Ok, so it’s not really a secret anymore, but I hope you have discovered the power of sustaining thought-filled practice.
(Author’s Note: If you want the MP3 recording of this article, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with “10,000 Hours” in the subject line.)