What the pros know – leaps in ability, consistent performance

Jeff talked yesterday about the value of practicing new tools and skills, to truly master them for application in the most challenging project circumstances.  Today I want to go farther on that theme, looking at how practice is utilized in other fields, and asking, what else could we and should we be doing for practice in our “project arena”, and what would successful practice include?

Here is a fundamental question ties to the idea of “doing” vs. taking time to “practice”:   Why do we just sort of do our jobs each day — deal with what hits our desk, go from one meeting to the next, ad hoc  deal with whatever comes at us,  and expect to be truly great managers — when others in other fields clearly do way more than this to achieve their  best performance and results?

The real pros out there know that the highest levels of performance require ongoing learning that includes active practice and feedback. I love the can-do spirit of Nike’s Just Do It! slogan. But let’s face it — the athletes making the big bucks don’t “just do it.” Elite athletes are elite precisely because they do way more than just show up, play, and hope for the best. They watch film, do drills, get one-on-one coaching, play practice games, strength train, and stretch. They learn, they do, they strengthen, they adjust, they watch, they practice, they adjust, they perform, they analyze, they go back and drill and practice some more. They invest serious time in preparation for the big moments of performance. They get coaching even during the performances themselves.

This point has come home to me recently, and not just because I watch way too much football.  Last year I trained, for the first time in my life, for an endurance sport event — a cross-country ski 25K event. I went from near coach-potato status to skiing 25 km in single digit temperatures, all within 4 months.  Now I’m back training for my second 25K event this coming March with the goal of a much faster time.

How did I go from couch to 25K in 4 months?  Certainly not by just showing up and trying to make it through on raw, existing ability. And not even by taking a class (a great idea, but nowhere near enough) and then putzing around on my own, hoping to improve enough to survive the marathon.

Instead, I hiked or skied an increasing number of miles every weekend with a group. We had coaches who drilled us on everything from stride technique to four different ways to get up hills. They showed us how to stretch, warm up, and eat right for endurance skiing. They skied beside us and gave us in-the-moment adjustments to our pole use, gliding, and body angle. They waited at the top of icy hills and coached us out of splayed-out falls and on up the hill, because they could see that our edge angles were not right and they could help us correct it right there. Four months in, I was strong and truly competent. And I was confident. (Willingly tackling hard things over and over again is made so much easier by a growing feeling of confidence! I got so much positive feedback on so many things, encouragement at every step of progress, that I could go tackle the next area of uncertainty or outright fear, get even better, and truly enjoy myself despite the challenges.)

You may be thinking that all this doesn’t apply to us as PMs. “All well and good for athletes. They only really perform at certain times of the week, in stand-alone events. We don’t perform in a periods of a few hours here and there; we do important work all day long.”

I take issue with that. I think we actually do have our own specific times of most important “management performance”: Executive interactions that will get us critical approvals (or not). Team decision-making sessions that will determine the direction of the project. Interactions with stakeholders that will determine our influence and their support (or lack thereof). Handling of collaborative cross-functional planning sessions that will produce a meaningful, committed schedule (or not.) It’s applicable to almost any line of work. One veteran surgeon who felt his skills had hit a plateau took on a coach. His skills started growing again, and his complication rate dropped.

What if we thought like elite athletes and teams? What if we identified the highest-leverage activities we do as PMs and spend time practicing and systematically preparing for the best possible personal performance and results. Instead of treating every task as equal in importance and “just doing it,” what if we identified the places where drills and practice and coaching could actually yield leaps in effectiveness and results?

If we had the mindset of elite athletes, we’d schedule time for multiple learning modes to make sure we were at peak readiness for every important, high-leverage project “performance.”

  • What if I handed off meeting minutes or action items to someone else and spent more time getting ready to lead a stunningly effective high-stakes project team meeting?
  • Wouldn’t it be great to show a new PM a video of a successful phase transition review (our version of watching game film!) so they could see how an experienced PM handled tough questions with insight and impact, got a commitment for additional resources, and impressed the executives?
  • What if I could role play an interaction with a demanding stakeholder, and adjust and refine my approach before I got that precious 15 minutes of their time?
  • What if a new PM got to help co-facilitate a project kickoff meeting with an experienced PM before having to handle their own — or had an experienced PM as a coach during their kickoff meeting, without anyone thinking that made the new PM seem weak?
  • What if I could have my own coach, whose job it was to help me become an awesome elite manager by continued refinement of multiple aspects of my performance?
  • What if it was normal and valued for all project managers to meet weekly and discuss up-to-the-minute intelligence on other “players on the field” in the coming week?

Some of these approaches do get used by forward-thinking companies. Others are perhaps more fanciful (company-specific game film!) but not impossible. I just think the mindset is important and worth some thought.

Think about where practice might help your confidence and results with certain people and situations on projects.  Then later this week I’ll talk more about the feedback and coaching aspect.  Practice without feedback will only get us so far – what if we’re practicing it wrong, or just not achieving the best results we could be if we just adjusted our techniques here and there?  Feedback in different project situations, whether practice, or real-time actual work, is important and very effective.   I’ll discuss the different ways it’s valuable and provide more thoughts on how and where we can fit it in.


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