There was a great article in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) that talks about the role practice plays in becoming truly great at something. They walk through research that suggest that while people clearly have some natural level of ability or affinity towards certain skills, it’s the hard work and dedication they put into the practice of their chosen art that ultimately sets them apart. There’s a feedback loop here – people tend to work harder at those things that they are good at (because they enjoy it more). There was one paragraph in particular that struck me and it relates to something that I’ve been thinking about that every business does, but most in my view do poorly. Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome. If you believe this, then you have to scratch your head at how most businesses and managers offer feedback to employees – through annual or semi-annual reviews. There are two problems with this approach: 1) the feedback is stale (and negative feedback easily rationalized by its recipient as memory fades and more importantly the time for correcting poor performance or reinforcing good performance has long passed); and 2) its generally tied to a conversation around compensation – either an annual bonus, pay increase or both. Rather than limiting the majority of feedback to a review period, try giving more consistent feedback (both positive and constructive) on a more regular basis. Get out of a presentation – talk about what worked and what didn’t; finish a sales call or demo, figure out what seemed to resonate with the customer and what can be improved; feel someone in the company did an outstanding job with a task – let them know why it worked so well. Equally important, reviews should be about reviews (and what I’m describing above shouldn’t replace a more formal review process, it should supplement and feed into it). Comp conversations should be about comp. Obviously they are related, but its much more constructive to review an employees performance when the outcome of that meeting isn’t about money (but rather about the improvement of performance).

    He also did some follow up posts on the data in the column.
    I liked the column, even though I agree with Sailer that hard work doesn’t just equal success.
    I agree with your point on immediate and constant feedback.

  • Dave Jilk

    Practice and feedback are actually two separate things … in *practice* you generally give yourself the feedback, with many repeated trials. So for example, doing the product demonstration off-line 20 times in an empty conference room to improve the flow would be practice.
    Feedback from others is necessarily more conscious and abstract, and far more relevant and effective if the person *asks* for it. Ideally, a company should build into its “DNA” to hire people who ask about their performance in specific instances and know that these discussions are normal (i.e., they need to be ok with being vulnerable).
    There is a great scene in “A River Runs Through It” where the son brings an essay to his father (who is also his teacher) and the father looks at it and then crumples it up. This happens four or five times. No detailed feedback – just an implied “not good enough”. Not that I recommend such sternness, but the point is that this is PRACTICE – the son was learning not only how to write, but how to give himself feedback.

  • I can go one better on the uselessness of annual reviews. Two years ago I left a company that did annual reviews at the same time annual merit raises were approved. But here’s the thing: raises were submitted and approved long before the reviews took place, so no employee had an opportunity to correct problems before their raise was determined.
    Then again, this is the same company whose only “need for improvement” noted in my annual reviews was the fact that I did not socialize with my coworkers to management’s satisfaction. Which I think brings up an important point about the kind of feedback a person receives while they are learning/practicing a skill.
    Is the party providing feedback casting wildly for any aspect to criticize, if you are generally succeeding? Or do they provide productive feedback about what you have mastered and what new nuance/area/what-have-you to aspire to next?