by Randy Sabourin

Practice makes perfect.

We have all heard the adage before: it takes time, practice, repetition, exploration, mistakes and successes to master a new skill. Perfect, though, is a rather lofty goal..

“When I was in school the teachers told me practice makes perfect; then they told me nobody’s perfect so I stopped practicing.”   Comedian – Steve Wright

So let’s say practice makes better or perhaps practice makes permanent.

Let’s explore how we generally acquire new business skills. Consider training a large group of sales people on objection handling and cross-selling and their managers on coaching to the new process. Usually the Corporate Learning and Development (L&D) team designs or purchases the training material, which is then incorporated into a workshop and perhaps an e-learning module. The participants are assembled; flights, hotels, venues are booked, and workshops are attended. The feedback from the workshops is outstanding, the e-learning scores are magnificent, and everyone is happy. Mission accomplished. If they were lucky, the Managers received an extra day of training regarding their responsibility to sustain the new sales process through coaching. While this process varies depending on the size of the organization and the commitment to the learning, this approach has been the norm for decades.

The real test of the training is whether the participants change their behavior in the field. If the way to measure ‘lift’ (a change in behavior and results) was part of the design process a key question is whether the Manager will have the skills to recognize any lack of change and then have time to coach to it. Usually, a few months go by and a small percentage of people are using the new content while Managers go back to focusing on their jobs with little time to coach. The status quo wins out and the L&D team goes back to the drawing board to design an even better training and coaching program for next year. Fingers point in both directions and the L&D budget is in jeopardy again next year with little or no evidence of return on training dollars invested.

Let’s examine a few issues in this standard design and deployment process. First, the design of the content is usually good; but, according to research, most participants only retain 12% to 15% of what they learn in a workshop. That is the way our brains and attentional processes work. The challenge then becomes sustainment and knowledge retention. The solution, to which most L&D professionals subscribe, is sustainment through coaching in the field but most Managers respond that they either have time to do their jobs or to coach, not both. Sadly, we know that if the training content is reinforced several times over the months after training, the knowledge retention of a learner skyrockets to 80% or 90%!

Understanding the new skill taught in the workshop is generally not a great challenge. If the workshop was designed well there even may have been a component of experiential learning to help us use this new skill. We learn in a workshop or via e-learning in a very analytical and logical way. The first time using a new skill generally does not turn out well which moves us from logical to emotional. We quickly decide to go back to the way we’ve always done it and avoid further distress or loss of business.

Most other professions solve this problem using practice.

“Practice does not make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect.”      Coach – Vince Lombardi

There is usually a scrimmage after a hockey or basketball practice to simulate the pressure of a game to reinforce the skills gained during practice. Airline pilots spend hours in flight simulators, the more realistic, and the more the pilot feels s/he is in a real crisis the better the practice. Fire Fighters practice improvising with the Jaws of Life  so they are prepared for the real thing. Doctors and Emergency Response Teams are using simulators (dummies that breath, or have severed limbs) to practice surgery and other lifesaving skills. Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything puts the need for practice into clear focus. Every professional musician or artist practices constantly.  Imagine how business results could increase if our business professionals took the time to practice as well.

But where and how do we practice business skills? Should we practice our sales approach on a client? Should we practice our coaching skills on our employees? The risk of trying something new in an important situation is very high, especially if you only have one chance to make a good impression.

How we practice makes a difference. Most professionals hire an expert with whom to practice, to help guide them, focus on strong or weak points, and to build their confidence and competence with the new skill so that they don’t revert back to the ‘old way’ under the first sign of pressure. What we work on during practice also counts.

In a Psychology Today article Why Music Moves Us – The emotional, physical, and cognitive effects of music, Jeanette Bicknell refers to a 1996 study by Sloboda, Davidson, Howe, and Moore that explores the quality of the practice versus the quantity.

“…part of the puzzle seems to be quality of time spent practicing rather than quantity. Not all ways of practicing are equally effective. For example, simply playing a piece through from beginning to end was not a particularly effective way of mastering it. Going through a piece and working on the most difficult areas slowly and deliberately was a much more effective strategy.

When it comes to practice, in music or business skills, isolate the steps in the process that offer difficulty and focus on them. Do not avoid them: practice them over and over.

The solution to increasing knowledge retention: practice!

The solution to using the newly acquired skill in the field: practice!

The solution to increasing the Return on Training Dollars Invested by the L&D Department: practice!

(more on ROI in part 2 of this article)

Imagine practicing with an expert on objection handling, one on one, where the expert is a professional actor and certified coach trained to be your customer. When you make a mistake you will receive immediate feedback from your customer’s perspective. Generally you only receive customer feedback when it’s too late. During your practice session you are reviewing the skills list from the training your company invested in. Without getting on a plane or missing any opportunities, you’re practicing different ways of  handling objections , experiencing different degrees of emotion from the customer, failing without consequences, and most importantly, working to perfect your weak spots like a great musician or professional athlete. And all this happens on the phone! Does your business deserve less?

More on how to incorporate practice into your business…

2 Responses to “Practice Makes…”

  • GG:

    I even really thought about this before but I get asked to coach my people on new stuff all the time and I hate it. It would be great if my people could practice getting appointments with you. You’ll hear from us.

  • Samantha V.:

    Great article and great newsletter. I play piano and I practice all the time. I also sell office furniture and I have never practiced a customer conversation in my life. I wish I had, I would have closed a lot more business when I started and I was figuring out how to sell. Keep up the good work.

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