Values: Practice Makes More Perfect

Yogi Berra

The more I practice, the luckier I get. Gary Player

Practice is about applying an idea, belief or method rather than the theories related to it. Practice is also about repeatedly performing an activity to become skilled in it.

The value and benefit of practice is taken for granted for performers at the highest level in fields such as sport, music, and art. Can you imagine teams like the New York Yankees in baseball, Toronto Maple Leafs in ice hockey, Dallas Cowboys in American Football, Manchester United in soccer just turning up on match day? In the arts, would the cast of Cirque du Soleil or the dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet just turn up on the day of the performance? Even the Rolling Stones practice.

From the sporting world we see that anyone who wants to learn and improve needs to commit time and effort to practice, to notice what works and doesn’t, to keep training until a routine is improved, perfected.

How does this translate to organizations? Training exists of course – focused on new recruits or “teaching” new skills and technical knowledge that may be required. Skilled execution is highly valued. But, in most organizations, there is not much focus on practice – and a lack of focus on reflection – on learning from that practice, considering what worked, what didn’t work and what to adjust next time. In organizations, practice and reflection are the missing links between the theory – the idea, and skilled execution.

A further common assumption that we make is that skills are purely physical and visible – some are, but many skills are not. Have you ever noticed the routines of top sports people coming out to deliver their personal best at any sporting event? The external habits are easy to see, the touching of a chain, adjusting a cap. These are backed up by a host of internal habits and routines. Skills bloom from a fertile and resourceful set of inner beliefs, ideas and attitudes.

What does practice do for you?
Practice enables you to broaden your repertoire, to deepen your knowledge, insight and capability. The brain, once thought to be a “fixed” entity, is malleable. Purposeful practice builds new neural pathways and constant repetition deepens those connections, making that new option a readily available choice.

The result of all this practice? The seemingly super-sharp reaction time of various ball sports is an illusion. In standard reaction time tests, there is no difference between, say, a leading tennis player compared to people in general. BUT, the player is able to detect minute subtle movement in the server’s arm and shoulder which from years and years of practice has led them to read the direction of the serve before the ball has even been played. It’s this practice that has created unconscious patterns and distinctions that the player responds to equally unconsciously – resulting in the seemingly super-sharp responses in the professional game.

Wayne Gretzky, a Canadian ice hockey player, has been described as the greatest ice hockey player ever by many in his field. His talent captures this attention to the context of a game rather than focusing on distinct actions alone. “Gretzky’s gift…is for seeing…amid the mayhem, Gretzky can discern the game’s underlying pattern and flow, and anticipate what’s going to happen faster and in more detail than anyone else.”

The same is found in experts in many fields. They instinctively know – based on years of practice. They are able to pick up minute distinctions and patterns that the rest of us are blind to.

Purposeful practice is the primary contributing factor (above natural talent) to excellence in sport and life.  To be a truly practised at a skill or habit, hours of sustained practice are required – estimated at 10,000 hours (2.7 hours a day for 10 years). This finding has been validated across professions. The focus and attention to the practice and learning from that practice is fundamental.

At this level of competence in a particular skills context, you have developed what is described as reflection-in-action – where you are critically aware of what you are doing while you are doing it – judging each moment for its suitability against an inner set of criteria – at the same time that you are actually doing the activity. It’s this attention to practice that enables you to keep performing at your best.

It’s not necessarily the amount of time you spend at practice that counts; it’s what you put into the practice. Eric Lindros

“Failure” is part of the territory –Paradoxically, failure is a key part of success. Framing failure as an opportunity to learn is a key to building success. For example, Shizuka Arakawa, one of Japan’s greatest ice skaters, reports falling over more than 20,000 times in her progression to become the 2006 Olympic champion.

Practice is the best of all instructors. Publilius Syrus

Excellence comes from pushing at the boundaries of what is thought to be possible –Practice leads to excellence from constantly stretching to reach a much higher goal (often a goal that only the coach/manager thinks is possible). Thus practicing with (and being with) the best is critical to drive up performance and mindset.

When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.  Ed Macauley

One of the reasons Brazil is so successful at soccer is because most of the footballers played futsal. The smaller, heavier ball demands greater precision and encourages more frequent passing.

Linking heart, mind and body – practicing any skill is a full mind, heart and body event. As you build new physical skills, you’re laying down and deepening neural pathways. As you develop competence and strength in a particular skill, you’re building up the positive emotions associated with execution. Practice in something can lead to belief in your ability to do it. This principle is one that informs coaches and practitioners working in the area of somatics and embodiment.

So if you embody confidence, in how you stand, walk, and engage with others, you will believe that you are confident – try it.

So what?
How can organizations create the culture and space for practice in order to grow and learn, improve and deliver excellence? Individual practice at work is a systemic question – it’s about the prevailing culture, skills and process – as well as individual focus and motivation.

Specifically, what is the “feedback culture” of the organization? To what extent do people receive good quality feedback in a relatively “safe” environment (i.e. not a critical performance environment) so that they can learn and improve – getting it right when it really matters?

An organization with a blame culture will limit people’s motivation to practice. And it will suffocate learning and growth. Employees will look to hide and deny mistakes rather than own and learn from them. Such an organization will limit its ability to adapt and change, and within a fast-changing global context, such a limitation may well lead to demise.

It’s not just about avoiding a blame culture – how can you establish an environment of striving to achieve the best and an expectation that this will be achieved? Everybody then benefits from the virtuous circle of being with others who are excellent at what they do. This “multiplier” effect impacts across groups and communities.

Practice and 31Practices
31Practices is an approach to putting values into practice every day. To become part of the fabric and the way of being (rather than just words in a glossy document), the values have to be practiced each day, by everybody in the organization. For example, an organization may have the core value “Relationships”, and a Practice to bring this value to life, “We invest time with stakeholders to build long lasting relationships”. On the day of this particular Practice, all employees are therefore very mindful and consciously looking for opportunities to build strong relationships with colleagues, customers, suppliers, communities. The impact? Let’s consider:

Today, instead of sending an email update, I took the time to call the project sponsor and ask her what she was noticing, and what did we need to start, stop, continue in her view. I learned that a key team member was in the process of resigning for personal reasons – something that was not widely known – this information enabled me to think through the delivery schedule and prepare a shift in resource to come into play when the news was made public. The call took five minutes – it would have taken me longer to compose the email. I felt great.

Over the course of one month, you live each of the organization’s values through a number of different Practices. Initially, like any new activity, you may feel uncertain, perhaps even a little anxious: “Am I doing it right?” Over time, the Practices are repeated, becoming habitual – you don’t have to think about them and they become automatic. You will find that you start adopting the Practices more generally, not just the one that day.

This works across small and large groups. Marriott’s Daily Basics program was based on the same principle and operated across 3,000 hotels globally.

A key point is that, just as with sport or other activities, hours of purposeful practice of behaviors and attitudes that are purposefully linked to living core values will result in a strong values-based culture (if we take the view that culture is the “way things are done around here”).

What do you think about the concept of “practicing” your values?  How do you “practice” your values? Please comment below.

Editor’s Note: This post was adapted from Chapter 16 Practice of the Williams and Whybrow book (2013) THE 31 PRACTICES – Releasing the Power of Your Organization’s Values Every Day, LID Publishing, which is being released in the U.S. in June 2014.

Photo Information: Dressed in a ‘black hat’ costume, a Buddhist monk performs a sacred dance at the Tibetan monastery of Shechen in Nepal.” Photograph by Matthieu Ricard 2006 and altered with addition of quote.

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Alan coaches service based businesses internationally and in the UK to deliver inspiring service for competitive advantage, and has a particular interest in workplace/FM. He uses his 31Practices approach to help service sector organisations (and FM supply chains) to release the power of their organisational values and the book was published to critical acclaim in UK and USA. He served as President of the Meetings Industry Association, is a Fellow of the Institute of Hospitality, a Board member of the British Quality Foundation, a Steering Group member of the UK Values Alliance and a Founding Faculty Member of CultureUniversity.com.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Armando Alcaraz

    I really enjoyed your article and I completely agree that practice is necessary. How are values going to be present if they are not lived and practiced? I am wondering though how the comparison of practice with things such as sports or other activities work in the area of motivation. Normally if I, say, want to learn to play the piano, I come with a motivation on a personal level. Maybe I yearn to play the piano like a famous pianist I listen to, or I want to learn to play as my father used to.. In an organization, how does the motivation for the individuals present? It seems that all the individuals need to have a very clear picture of how practicing those core values will be, well, of value to them.