The Importance of Practice for Improving Skills at Work

Firefighters showing the Importance of Practice for Improving Skills at Work

The Importance of Practice for Improving Skills at Work
Imagine trying to fight a fire after reading a book about firefighting or watching a video about it – or even after going to a one-day training class about how to fight fires.  The truth is that the only way to become proficient at a new skill is to practice and get feedback.  Unfortunately, too many leaders and learners believe that intellectual understanding is enough and mistakenly discount the importance of practice for improving skills at work.

While Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at a new skill, we believe that it takes much less time to become proficient enough to improve on-the-job performance.

Why Practice Matters
To learn a new skill and to improve performance, people must practice, get feedback and make adjustments.  Progress occurs by trying, understanding what works and what does not work, course-correcting, and trying again.

By definition, learning requires people to step out of their comfort zone.  No matter what skill you want to improve or behavior you want to change—from perfecting your golf swing to honing your ability to present persuasively—practice is an essential ingredient.  Just ask any concert performer or professional athlete, it takes hard work, training and ongoing drills to get better.

No student ever attended Julliard and no football player ever walked on the field at the Super Bowl without many, many hours of practice and feedback.

The Importance of Practice for Improving Skills at Work
The same is true in the workplace.  New skills must be learned and, for most of us, learning requires effort and dedication. And the effort and dedication is worth it.

  • Our strategy, culture and talent alignment research, found that Talent accounts for 29% of the difference between high and low performing teams in terms of revenue, profitability, customer satisfaction and employee engagement.
  • Our training research, based upon measuring over 800 training projects, found that only 1-in-5 participants change their on-the-job performance from training that is not reinforced with consistent practice, coaching and measurement.

What It Takes to Improve Skills at Work
Once you understand the importance of practice for improving skills at work, take these steps to make improved performance a reality.

1. Ruthlessly Focus on What Matters Most to Both Business and People Performance
Not all skills have the same level of importance in terms of executing your business strategy. Spend the time required to identify the most relevant skills to your target audience, their bosses and the business.  Then focus on the one or two skills and the one or two scenarios that matter most.

2. Create an Environment for Learning, Practice and Feedback
People need the time, space and encouragement to learn, make mistakes and be open to feedback. Expect a learning curve, encourage practice and risk-taking, and reward those who model trying.

The most successful learners make time each and every week to practice and get feedback.  If you do not “have the time” to practice on a weekly basis, you can save a lot of training dollars and time by skipping the training all together.

3. Provide Relevant Job Aids and Tools
In order to accelerate practice sessions, provide relevant job aids and tools tied to the one or two most relevant skills. The best job aids help people to increase performance by providing access to the models, frameworks and information they need to perform the new skills. Put yourself in the learner’s shoes and keep them simple, relevant and accessible.

4. Provide Targeted and Consistent Performance Coaching
When it comes to the importance of practice for improving skills at work, practice does not make perfect. As most of us know, time spent on an activity does not automatically translate into performance improvement.  Practice with effective feedback makes perfect.

Assign coaches and develop an improvement plan with simple, relevant and actionable goals and success metrics to hold people accountable to improving both skills and performance.

5. Measure Progress and Hold People Accountable
Make sure you put a process in place to measure, track and answer the following questions:

  • Adoption – Are people using the new knowledge, skills and processes?
  • Reinforcement – Are managers involved, supportive, and reinforcing?
  • Impact – Are the new skills making the desired impact?

The Bottom Line
Practice and feedback, especially in the early stages of learning or when faced with performance plateaus, can have a measurable impact on skill development.  Are you creating the right environment for your people to learn and perform at their peak?

To learn more about the importance of practice for improving skills at work, download How to Connect the 2 Biggest Training Disconnects to Get A Return on Your Training Investments

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