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Practicing New Skills for Greater ROI

By Tim Deuitch

Practicing New Skills for Greater ROI

When we play on sports teams or on the stage we constantly practice for many hours a week, so why do we expect a few hours in a training session to magically make us better?

Why is practicing new skills such a foreign concept in the workplace? In this episode, we discuss simple strategies that you can practice when you are alone, with a co-worker and as a manager to gain greater ROI from your training investment.

Tim Deuitch: 00:01  Well hello and welcome everybody to today's edition of strategic insights brought to you by Strategic Enhancement Group. I'm Tim Deuitch, Senior Performance Consultant with Strategic Enhancement Group and today I'm joined by Susan Hall, she's our Vice President of Business Development and Performance Improvement. Welcome, Susan.

Susan Hall: 00:22  Hi Tim. It's great to be here.

Tim Deuitch: 00:23  Well thanks and thanks for joining. All the topics we work on are very interesting and valuable I think to me and to all those who listen. But this one today is especially important and the topic is practicing new skills. Why do we have this conversation? It's a fascinating thing that so many of the clients we work with who will train their people in new skills don't really spend a lot of time practicing. So today, we thought it would be helpful to discuss the topic through a couple of different mediums. Why is it important to practice, what gets in the way of practicing new skills? Then certainly, to offer some ideas for practicing new skills, practicing when you're alone, practicing with a coworker. What are the roles of the manager in helping to foster good practicing skills, and so forth, and then we'll certainly talk through some conclusions. So, that's the focus of our of our topic today. Susan, how does that sound?

Susan Hall: 01:34  I think that sounds really effective. I know all of our clients are looking for ways to get return on their investment in training and development. I think all of us personally and professionally have had experiences where we hear great ideas and best practices, and yet, at the end of the day, we're hard-pressed to even remember what it is that we learned. So practice is really that key between closing the gap from a great idea and a great result.

Tim Deuitch: 02:08  That's right. We know research says, this isn't just anecdotal. The research tells us that really within a very short order, as short as 90 days, whatever we've learned in a training session tends to dissipate from our mindset. So we can lose as much as 85% of what was delivered in a training session in a very short order if we're not having the skills reinforced and we're not practicing them. Is that about the right data point?

Susan Hall: 02:39  Yeah. I'm surprised it's that long, quite frankly, without any practice. Do you remember Tim, several years ago, Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers?

Tim Deuitch: 02:39  Yes.

Susan Hall: 02:50  He talked about, I thought it was really fascinating. He talked about, what makes good people great? Assuming that you've got a talented individual, whether they're a sports figure or he used the example of the Beatles. There's a lot of talented people out there, so what makes that small percent just rise to the top? He talks about the concept of 10,000 hours. Do you remember that?

Tim Deuitch: 02:50  Sure, absolutely.

Susan Hall: 03:20  That it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be great and that's the difference. If you think about that, assuming a 40 hour work week, that's five years of time. Now, we're certainly not suggesting that you need five years to get really great at using a new skill, but the whole idea is that sports figures, musicians, entertainers, athletes, professionals, you look at somebody who does such a phenomenal job that they make it look easy. If you unpack it and uncover it, it takes a lot of practice to get that effective.

Tim Deuitch: 04:04  And it does. This brings us into the business world. What is it about us that's it makes perfect sense to intensely practice in the sports world, or in the arts world on stage, and so forth. It makes perfect sense, but all of a sudden we get into the business day and for some reason, it's not natural to us to practice. We'll spend oodles of money on training and trying to bring people up to speed and aligned with our strategic direction and certainly to land business, but sometimes we send our people out to fifty thousand, hundred thousand, million dollar contract moments with relatively little practice. What do you think's going on there?

Susan Hall: 04:57  I think it's a few things. One is, we're all busy. There's a lot of white noise and there are a lot of responsibilities competing for our time. The reality is that we're creatures of habit so that without reinforcement, without accountability, without building time into our days, without leadership and management support, we default to our comfortable position, which is what we've always done.

Tim Deuitch: 05:31  I get even further into the fundamentals. How many of us have ever been handed a job description where one of the items on the job description says you must practice the skills required to succeed.

Susan Hall: 05:31  That's a great point. Never.

Tim Deuitch: 05:59  Whereas, all of us when we enter into the sports, the arts, the realms, it's understood that if we don't go to practice, we don't get the play, because there are standards involved in what we're involved in. But, all the way down to that simple mechanic, we don't in the business world, put that into play.

Susan Hall: 06:18  I think that's probably one of the most critical points of our conversation, is that, if we can schedule time in our day to day work to practice and if management can make that a requirement, to your point, part of our job description, to practice the skills and part of that is practicing on our own. You mentioned in our introduction Tim, you want to talk about management's role in that and co-workers, there's a few different creative ways that we can discuss around practicing, but whatever that looks like, it needs to be built into our day to day responsibilities.

Tim Deuitch: 07:04  Right. I want us to shift to those skills in a second, but there's one more thing I wanted to mention about the what stops us category in that, I want to add one more thing and it's ego. We're often hired with the expectation that we already have the skills in place and most of us, if we're really honest with ourselves, realize, "Oh no, I've got gaps here, I've got some blind spots or things that I flat out know I need to get better at." But, are you in an environment where you're comfortable saying, "Hey, you know what, I need some help here." And often ego gets in the way or just discomfort with raising your hand to say, "You know what, I could use some practice in this area."

So as we transition to some ideas summarizing what are the whys that get in the way. Well, we don't make it part of a natural part of our day. That's one thing in the business world, so if you can find ways to make it a natural part of your day, or your week, or your staff meeting, that's important. For managers or the job description itself to require that you practice, it's so subtle, but it's a really important piece of the equation. And then to sort of get out of our own way, we're hired with the expectation that we're supposed to have these skills, but reality says that we can't possibly bring all that we need to the table and to be able to establish a culture in your team, not just the organization, that allows people to raise their hand to say, "You know, I'd like to work on this, so I have the best chance possible." That's really critical.

Susan Hall: 08:50  I think that's a really, really nice summary Tim and that whole concept of ego too, just makes me think of some of the best sales people I've worked with have a strong sense of confidence, but they're confident enough to know that they can get better and they're coachable, and they're open to advice, and when we think about the training that we do, what's the one activity that people dread, they roll their eyes, it's the skill practices in front of the group. But, yet what's the one activity that inevitably we get feedback from, "Wow, that's where I got all my insight, that was painful, but I really learned it." It's the skill practices. Absolutely. Because there's that disconnect between knowing something and doing something. You can hear it and say, "Oh you know I get it, that makes perfect sense that I need to prepare for a meeting," but to actually do it in a systematic way, comprehensive way, is not always that easy. It sounds simple, but it's not easy. So, the more practice you have doing it, it's like building a muscle, the stronger that muscle becomes until you have muscle memory and you don't even have to think about it so much.

Tim Deuitch: 10:07  And so you've taken us into that skill or some ideas for putting those skills into practice. Let's look at the first one about when you're alone. I have two thoughts in mind for when you're alone. There's the element around preparing for an appointment that you have, a visit, and then related to that preparing is actually writing down the skill you need to improve for that visit. You're sort of almost committing to yourself that, "Okay, in this moment with this person I'm going to need to work on this skill", and maybe that skill is a discovery question where I'm going to remain patient because the person I'm visiting with is a big talker. So how will I manage a talker in this situation? How will I learn what I need to learn?

So those are two thoughts. Absolutely, just spending five minutes of thought before you go into a session, not on what you want to accomplish, but how you will accomplish that.

Susan Hall: 11:16  I think that's a really important distinction and I know a lot of people find benefit from just visualizing it as well. Kind of visualizing it in in your head, how this conversation might go, of course when you get in front of a real live person it may go in a completely different direction, but to have at least prepared for it will improve your confidence and also your ability to be versatile in that situation.

Tim Deuitch: 11:48  That's right. In both cases what you're doing is you're making that shift between this angst around what you're there to do to, "Ok, how am I going to pull this off, what are the unique things that I'll do?" So, here's another one, what you might be able to do with a co-worker. Again, five minutes, we're not talking about a dramatic presentation here, just stopping somebody for five minutes and asking them to assume the role, perhaps of a challenging situation, a challenging client and just say, "Hey, put me in this moment, let me try this thing out on you." Have you ever done that Susan?

Susan Hall: 12:32  I have and probably need to do that more as well, especially when it comes to communication styles. We have a colleague that is the opposite of my style, which happens to be expressive. I know, that's probably a big surprise, but I was going in to meet with executives at a pharmaceutical organization and I remember him being very analytical. So, I spoke with my colleague and I said, "Here's my plan, does this make sense, what would you recommend?" And because she is of an analytical style, she was able to validate some things, but also really give me some great input in terms of sending information beforehand, focusing on the process, some very specific strategies that I was able to prepare for and practice before going into that meeting. I think that's a valuable thing that you can do as well.

Tim Deuitch: 13:40  Absolutely and it's a good habit once you do it a couple of times with a co-worker or just somebody you trust, "Let me bounce this off of you." Once you do it a couple of times and it helps you, it's easier to do as you move forward and so forth, so it's a very good habit. Let me shift us to a manager, how does the manager help in this? Now we all know that one way a manager can help is pure role play, "Let's have a meeting where everybody role plays for a while," and so forth, let's say that's a given and it's not always a given behaviorally, but it's a natural idea. The two I wanted to look at is more around modeling and reflection. One of the things I've seen in my clients is that there's precious little ride along activity where you move the manager from a position of critique, the shoulda, coulda assessment of what just happened. You move them into an active player in delivering skills and this is what you talk about, how you'll approach it, you work together, approach it. You see the manager model it and then you talk about it post-meeting and so forth. That's one of them, again what's your experience in that arena now?

Susan Hall: 14:56  I think so as well, the challenge is you need a manager who is good at that skill, or at least good at observing the skill. That's a whole other podcast Tim, but one tool that can help with this is a planner. I know when we work with our clients there are typically planners that come along with it. To your earlier point about writing things down, if you can think about the skill and what kind of behavior demonstrating that skill will mean for you, for a particular client, to move that opportunity forward. To have a bit of a template or a reminder in a planning forum, can help you plan for it, practice it, and then also de-brief it, so that ideally, your manager will be able to assist with that. But even if they can't, or they're not with you, or for whatever reason don't have the ability to, you're able to almost self-critique, self-coach. I think every leader, every salesperson, has walked out of a meeting and just collapsed in a chair and said, "You know, that didn't go quite the way I wanted it to," but then instead of moving on, it's taking a couple minutes to think about, "What could I have done differently? Now, what about that? It went really well that I want to replicate and what about it could I change?" The planning tools can help with that process of reflection.

Tim Deuitch: 16:44  The last thing I wanted to mention on the skills is actually related to that. So we take that thought one step further and that is around when you're in staff meetings, whether it's a one to one or maybe it's a team, that we don't ever or rarely take the time to get in the elongated role play or practice moments. What I do suggest is a literal practice moment, this is a tip for managers, where you ask your team to bring in, and maybe it is a case of just writing down that one skill that's vexing people, something they think they could get a little better at.

One of the tacks I take when I consult with clients is around the concept of good, better, best. Where we look at it and sometimes we don't go into practicing if we think we're just pretty good at something. We don't look at, "Well what could be even a better way to approach something". So I use the good, better, best methodology in thinking about discovery questions for certain situations, for certain types of people, there's a certain question that might get you the information you need, but maybe there's a better question or even a best question and five minutes of dialogue with your peers on how something could be nuanced to move forward is usually a very fertile conversation. So we've covered a lot of ground and I want to offer a couple of conclusions and maybe there's something I missed Susan, so listen intently here. Here we go.

On one level around practicing, we think leaders and managers should constantly promote practice. If we're not promoting practice at some level then all we're doing is just reading about it. We've taken us from the mechanics of a job description to a few minutes in a staff meeting, to a few minutes individually out there, but it's up to the leader-manager to reinforce practice. Secondly, it doesn't take more than a few minutes. It's a basic axiom here, but what the difference is, it's a few minutes regularly, as opposed to a few minutes two months ago. It's a regular application. Thirdly, we didn't even touch on this, it's the reality that practice builds confidence. It's positive, it's uplifting, even though just as we enter it, like you said, that angst of role play in training when we enter it, it feels weird, but when we exit it, we realized, "My goodness, this was a good use my time." Those are three upshots, would you add another one Susan before we close.

Susan Hall: 19:28  I think that's a nice summary, the only other thing that I would emphasize is that point you made Tim, about ego. Sometimes we have to get out of our own way and just realize that there are things that we can improve upon. If we can put that aside and just be open to practicing and just remembering that the best of the best do this every single day.

Tim Deuitch: 19:58  Absolutely, well said, there you go. We hope we've been helpful on this topic. It's a very critical topic and it is all about yes, it's about confidence, yes, it's about bringing on a more fulfilling experience for us, but don't forget it is also about results. Our results will grow if we practice more.

Thank you for joining me. Thank you, Susan, for joining us, very, very helpful. Let me leave you with this, if you think your organization could be helped by this topic or others, or if we can help you in any way to make your teams more effective, please contact

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Published: July 21, 2017


Tim Deuitch

Senior Performance Consultant

Tim brings over 25 years of experience working closely with business leaders throughout the Twin Cities and the USA. He has worked within a multitude of workplace cultures and economic cycles, helping leaders and teams improve their effectiveness and results. Since joining SEG in 2007, Tim has continued his work as a change agent, helping organizations meet their goals. Tim graduated from Warren Wilson College in 1983 with a B.S. degree in social work.

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