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1. Ericsson Anders, Pool Robert Peak: secrets from the new science of expertise Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016
(text of video)
Seeing complex situations in new ways
A study about the top players in chess helps to understand this aspect of elite performance.(1) Players were allowed to look for just a few seconds at a chess board with 12 – 24 pieces.
When the pieces were arranged in a pattern taken from the middle of an actual game, the elite player remembered about two-thirds of the pieces and their positions while novices remembered only around four. Surprisingly, when the pieces were placed completely at random, all players, even elite ones, could remember only about two to three pieces.
The condition taken from a real-life game, unlike the random condition, had pieces in meaningful connection to each other. That is, the pieces arrived at their positions as a result of actual strategies. In such real conditions, elite players seem to have learned to quickly see patterns within large amounts of information and then devise creative alternatives. Novice players don’t see patterns as readily, devise fewer options, and are less flexible in response.
Key elements of deliberate practice
Elite performers develop these quick ways of grasping a complex situation through what is called “deliberate practice.” Several key elements of this practice are: a strong motivation to improve; well-defined goals; and taking action through trial and error. In trial and error, elite performers learn about effectiveness of their actions from immediate feedback, adjust ways of seeing a situation, and then adjust actions.
The unique challenges of leadership in taking on deliberate practice
Leaders face unique challenges in taking on “deliberate practice.” Daily complexity, stress, and endless to-do lists tend to wear down motivation and creativity. Also, while chess players are able to practice outside of real-life competition by thinking through historical games, leaders are quite constrained by time and lack access to useful examples for practice.
So, deliberate practice must happen mostly in the midst of work by reflecting about situations before and after. This is very hard to do and is one reason why coaching can be so helpful with leadership. It helps to sustain motivation and learning from experience.
Another major challenge is that leadership is predominantly a relational endeavor. Human behavior in work relationships can be daunting in its messy complexity and huge diversity. On top of this, our brains are hard-wired to respond to the stress of relational issues with leaps to nearly automatic, negative conclusions which limit creativity of response. For example, all of us, at times, attribute relational problems to personality or lack of skills or less than good intentions. While very compelling, these conclusions are most often inaccurate.
Knowing relational patterns can accelerate practice
This leap to negative conclusions is an example of a “pattern” that, recognized in-the-moment, can be intentionally set aside through deliberate practice, enabling new ways of seeing and more effective action. Based on research and experience, there are multiple known patterns concerning relational issues at work which can inform and accelerate deliberate practice.
Above this article (just below the video) are instructions on how to access a resource guide about these patterns or “strategies” for changing the way we see and respond to work situations.
The sky is the limit
Research indicates reaching an “elite” level of performance is a long term endeavor requiring around 10,000 hours of practice. But, because perceptions and creativity are so vulnerable to stress at work, deliberate practice usually offers immediate benefits. The hard part is staying with it. If we do, research suggests there is no predefined limit to our potential—the sky may be the limit to our abilities.