Practice makes perfect…or just do it?

Jonathan Males compares and contrasts the worlds of business and sport, and sets out the lessons for managers from athletes.

One of the big justifications for hosting the 2012 Olympics is that success on the sports field motivates and inspires the whole nation, and that Olympians are valuable role models. In the words of UK Sport’s Peter Keen, “short of economic domination and warfare, I’m not sure what else makes sense of our national identity and our hopes to succeed as a country”.

Watching an elite athlete or team perform superbly is certainly exciting and inspirational – but how feasible is it to simply apply winning approaches from sport to business? From my experience of five Olympic Games – and working with hundreds of business leaders – I can see that there are clear parallels, but also some important differences.

First, let’s consider how Olympic athletes prepare to perform at their peak. A top athlete will spend hours every week in the gym, lifting literally thousands of kilos of weight. It’s hard, exhausting work yet the exercise physiologists tell us that the big strength improvements don’t happen until later: the following 15 to 18 hours, as the athlete rests. This is when his muscle, after being damaged by the training, re-grows bigger and stronger than before. If an athlete doesn’t rest, he doesn’t get stronger. He just gets hurt. He knows that the rest and recovery is crucial for performance improvement.

Also, an athlete has clearly specified events when he needs to perform, and can plan his training schedule around them. He chooses the most important events and aims to ‘peak’ for them – which involves building in both practise and recovery time. After the England football team’s poor show at the recent World Cup, commentators asked whether their gruelling schedule and lack of recovery time stopped them peaking properly at the event.

But, in business, the same rules don’t apply. Business is relentless. Everything counts, and there’s no off season. You’ve got to produce results all the time, rather than at clearly defined championships. And, however much you want to, you can’t have another go at something you messed up the first time. Most managers complain they haven’t got enough time to stay on top of their emails, let alone find the time for practise and recovery.

It’s typical for a serious athlete to spend 95 per cent of his time practising and 5 per cent actually doing it for real. By comparison, most managers spend only a tiny percentage of their time practising and the vast majority ‘doing’.

Despite these differences, you can still find ways to improve your performance that filter down from top-level competition.

Keep your eye on the finish line

Keep a steady eye on the ultimate outcome and seek small improvements to take you there. A one per cent improvement doesn’t sound much but add up enough ‘one per cents’ and you’ll break records.

We’ve all heard stories about athletes achieving success by steadily grinding away and achieving small marginal gains. I always remember the swimmer with her eye on Olympic gold. All that stood between her and the podium was two seconds, and three years. She did the sums and broke it down: every single training session, she needed to improve by a blink of an eye. Even a one per cent improvement can make a huge difference – in many events, it’s the difference between fourth place and getting a medal.

In training, it means being able to remember the difference between two types of goal. First up are long-term, stretching outcome goals, like winning an Olympic medal. They’re what motivate you, what get you out of bed in the morning to put in the hard yards. The second type of goals are those that bring your attention ‘into the moment’ to help you improve your technique. They’re much more subtle – one equestrian rider I know talks about “the feel of a powerful canter” – but just as important.

These ‘in the moment’ goals are how you improve in tiny, incremental steps. The Japanese call it “kaizan”, which translates as “constant innovation in tiny steps”. And it works wonders in business…

Tasmanian entrepreneur Robert Clifford picked up the concept quickly. He is the chairman and founder of Incat, the shipbuilding company that pioneered the sleek, wave-piercing catamaran ferries that zip back and forth between Dover and Calais.   His invention of the big, fast aluminium catamaran transformed an important niche in world shipping. In 30 years he went from fisherman to owner of a $200m business. His mantra along the way was this “constant innovation in tiny steps”. It looks to outsiders like a metamorphic transformation but insiders have seen these tiny changes, year on year. You can liken it to an account that pays one per cent monthly compound interest: that sort of reliable growth gives enormous returns in the long term.

Without this combination of a long-term, challenging goal and attention to each detail in the moment, it’s almost impossible for managers to learn and grow. Robert Fritz calls the process “structural tension” – a valuable stretch between now and the future.

Perfection only comes from stability

True mastery in any field takes time and dedication in a stable environment: ten years or around 10,000 hours of quality practice. There is plenty of evidence for this in sport and the performing arts – but how does this help in business? Is it even possible to achieve mastery as a manager?

A recent article by Richard Baker in the Harvard Business Review suggested that it was wrong to believe that ‘management’ is a true profession. “The manager… is responsible for bringing together many inputs,” he writes. “The lawyer is always concerned with matters of law, whereas the manager’s focus may change significantly and unpredictably from one day to the next. In general, the professional is an expert, whereas the manager is a jack of all trades and a master of none – the antithesis of the professional.”

I disagree. Managers are professionals, but their skill set brings together integration, co-ordination, context scanning and dealing with people. These so-called ‘soft skills’ are anything but soft and, for most people, they take a long time to refine.

One thing managers have to deal with that athletes don’t is the amount of ‘churn’ in most organisations. So, while we hear a lot about agility and responsiveness, too much change gets in the way because people need stability to learn and consolidate skills. In sport there are exceptions – like 2004’s Olympic rule changes that meant Chris Hoy had to move from the 1km time trial to sprint and Keirin – but athletes can normally train and prepare with much more long-term certainty.

In business, this sort of change can be constant – and very damaging. When people feel they’ve lost control, they get more stressed and less motivated. It’s hardly an ideal environment in which to learn and consolidate new skills. So what can businesses do? How can they adapt to near-constant change and provide enough stability for people to develop?

Some companies have recognised the negative impact of initiative overload. They’ve taken the brave step of canning projects, freezing organisational structures and limiting the number of goals that managers can set. For example Lidl, the discount supermarket chain, banned all new projects for six months while it focused on opening 29 new stores in Switzerland.

If this sort of radical approach is a step too far, a good option is to seek out a mentoring relationship. There’s often pressure to focus coaching interventions on fast, measurable change and a legitimate fear of managers becoming over-dependent on a coach. Strike the right balance, though, and a carefully managed relationship can be a stable way for a manager to take stock, learn and grow over time. A coach can give objective feedback and a long-term view that helps a manager stay on track in his search for mastery. This is especially useful in periods of major re-structuring, because line managers may not be able to provide such a stable perspective.

Learning while doing

So if the lesson from sport is that periods of intense activity have to be followed by rest, recovery and reflection, how can you achieve similar gains in business? How can managers review their own performance and keep learning – while they still deliver?

Harvard Professor of Education Bill Torbert recommends “action inquiry”, a process of awareness and reflection that can really help. It’s related to the idea I introduced earlier about not separating your long-term outcomes from your immediate goals.

So, although it may not be possible to put in as much dedicated practice time as elite athletes, you can develop the skills they’ll use to reflect on performance and get it better for next time. With practise, you can apply this reflective awareness almost in real time, so there’s the possibility of learning and changing your behaviour ‘in the moment’.

Put simply, action enquiry involves asking yourself three questions about your behaviour:

1. Did I behave in the way I intended? Think about what you said, did or thought. Did you behave in the way you’d planned?

2. Did this behaviour support my strategy? How did others respond? What were the outcomes? Were the consequences right for your overall strategy?

3. Was this the best strategy to achieve my long-term intent or vision? This is the most seldom asked question because the answers can lead you to radically reappraising your whole approach.

It’s very common in sport, because it looks beyond the minutiae of an athlete’s performance to put it in context with his overall training. There’s a very clear example from one of my early sporting mentors, Rick Mitchell. Rick’s the Australian 400m runner who went on to lead the Tasmanian Institute of Sport in 1988, and I’ll always remember the story behind his 1980 Olympic success.

In the three years leading into the Olympics, no-one had beaten a time of 44.9 seconds in a major competition. Rick figured that, if he could run this fast, he could win the gold medal so he based his training on reaching that target time, under pressure, when it counted. And he did – in fact he ran even faster in the final, covering a single lap of the Moscow stadium in 44.84 seconds.

The only problem for Rick was a young Russian runner, unknown in the west, named Viktor Martin. Viktor covered the same lap in 44.6 seconds to take the gold medal. Rick won the silver medal and his time still stands as an Australian record. How did Rick evaluate and learn from his performance?

Did he behave in the way he intended? Yes, Rick executed his own race plan perfectly. Every pace, every stride, just as he intended. Everything that was within his control went to plan. The performance was, by some margin, a personal best.

Did this behaviour support his strategy? Rick knew that if he was fastest in the world he’d win the gold. But on this occasion he wasn’t.

Was this the best strategy for his long term intent or vision? Rick’s intention was to win a gold medal, so in this regard his strategy fell short. Despite this, Rick was philosophical about his silver medal – one of the few of any colour that the Australian team won in Moscow.

Rick was able to perform at his best when it counted. The flaw lay not in the execution but in the mis-match between his intent (44.9) and his vision of being the fastest in the world at the time of the Games. He based it on imperfect information – not knowing about the Siberian performances of the youngster Martin. Effective strategies rely on the best possible intelligence.

How might the same approach help someone in a business setting?

A while ago I worked with Phil, who was director of a business unit employing nearly 1,000 people, and also on the management board. People saw him as an effective unit leader: his non-conformist style, creativity and willingness to take risks inspired respect and loyalty. But at a corporate level, this was seen as more of a problem.

His fellow directors were frustrated and exhausted by his constant challenging and unwillingness to follow the corporate line. After a short feedback exercise, Phil began to see that he needed to change.

His vision was to become the CEO but, while he had the intellect and experience, his behaviour didn’t inspire the confidence of his peers and would-be direct reports, and the non-execs were nervous too. Through coaching, Phil started to pay more attention to his behaviour in board meetings, and he committed to small experiments, such as building on other people’s ideas rather than demolishing them through the power of his intellect.

The first level of action inquiry meant asking him to notice how often he did this. Simply raising awareness reinforces new behaviour.

Phil’s next level was looking at the consequence of his behaviour. He noticed two outcomes: he found it easier than he expected, and he didn’t experience the loss of authority he feared, and his peers were engaging more positively with him.

The final level of his learning is on-going. Whether the strategy of building more positive relationships will support him in his quest to become a CEO still isn’t clear, but the signs are good.

Can Olympic success inspire business?

We can’t necessarily recreate the same conditions as in Olympic sport. Business just doesn’t work like that – intense practise interspersed with protected rest, a clearly prioritised series of events over a stable, long-term, competitive cycle and a high ratio of practise to competition.

On the other hand, there are things we can learn. Managers and leaders can hone their skills and learn faster by keeping an eye on the finish line, providing stability in the midst of chaos, and developing the awareness to reflect during the action.