Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

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We have all heard the cliché that ‘‘practice makes perfect.’’ We update this cliché a bit: practice makes permanent, but only perfect practice makes perfect. To illustrate the point, consider how long you have been writing by hand. However, if you took time to write your name on a piece of paper, does the result look like perfect penmanship? Such a poor result (we assume) from a lifetime of practice!

Our star examples involve musicians and athletes, because the results are obvious and often well known. At first glance, you may still be tempted to attribute success to raw talent. After all, Michael Phelps is 6’4” tall and has a ‘‘wingspan’’ that is even bigger at 6’ 7”! Phelps wears size 14 shoes, but has relatively short legs. Lance Armstrong has twice the lung capacity of the average man. Certainly, these star athletes do possess some physiological advantages. However, each athlete races against time. When we hear about the athletes’ almost unfathomable workouts and realize progress is clocked every lap, we begin to understand the significance of their intentionality. For example, feedback for Michael Phelps comes in 15 discrete measurements for each lap of each race.

Research in the world of musicians also provides significant insight about the role of intentional practice. Anders Ericsson, Conradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, tracked the progress of students at the West Berlin Academy, a top music school. Upon graduation, the students ended up in jobs as soloists, symphony performers, and music teachers. The single most important variable that determined the final career destination of the students was directly related to their lifetime practice habits (see Table 5.2). Students who ended up as soloists practiced nearly twice as much as those who became music teachers.

Table 5.2. Ultimate Musical Career by Hours of Practice

Is there something we can transfer based on our observation of the intentionality of these exemplary performers? For our refinery operator, we can leverage the results of his intentionality by sharing these ‘‘leading indicators’’ with other operators.  We can also update the expectations of operators, by showing them the exact zones of higher production, so that they can make the linkage between higher production, company revenue, and employee profit sharing. And we can provide job aids (performance support) that equip average operators to model the actions of our star performer. Deliberate practice is designed to specifically improve performance. It is repeated and the opportunity exists for immediate, corrective feedback. In addition, our experience shows that a coach, mentor, or teacher is often involved in providing both observation and feedback.

As you might guess, this practice challenges both the mental and physical resources of those who wish to emulate any star performer—but of course, that shouldn’t be news to anyone.

Excerpt from the book, Exemplary Performance: Driving Business Results by Benchmarking your Star Performers. Chapter 5: What Makes Stars Tick? (Section on ‘Intentionality’)

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