How to Learn Faster

Author Malcom Gladwell popularized the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something. Gladwell was summarizing research from Anders Ericsson. If you go back to the original source, there’s an interesting and critical nuance.

Ericsson was studying violinists at a high-level music school. It turns out that the group that achieved the highest level of mastery on violin and the group that was good but not great both spent about the same cumulative amount of time practicing. The essential factor wasn’t—as you might expect from Gladwell’s summary—time spent practicing. It was the quality of the practice. Specifically, the number of cycles of trying something new, getting feedback, and integrating that feedback.

In other words, if you want to get really good at something, you need iteration. And if you want to get really good quickly, you need quick iteration.

In this week’s Humanizing Work Show episode, “I Can’t Get My Team to Collaborate,” we reflect on how we discovered the magic of 1-day sprints as a tool to help a team quickly learn how to collaborate effectively. It’s one of the best tools we know of for accelerated team improvement.

And the same concept applies at both smaller and larger scales.

Short Cycles With Feedback

If you want to personally improve at something, design a learning process that has you hands-on practicing the skill in very short cycles with some form of feedback that you integrate into the next cycle.

Finish bannerFor example, if you want to get better at public speaking, don’t just commit to one presentation and spend a month or two preparing for it. That’s one big cycle. And it’s unlikely to go well.

Instead, record yourself giving a 5 minute presentation. Watch the video and take notes about things you’d like to improve. Record it again. See how you improved and what you’d still like to work on. Share the recording with someone who’s a better speaker than you and get their feedback. Do it again. In that same month or two that you would have used preparing for one big presentation, you can get dozens of cycles of practice and improvement.

This pattern works on a large scale, too. For organization-level changes, don’t just make a big plan to roll out the change in one shot. Treat it as an opportunity to learn in small cycles. Design and run a pilot with short feedback loops. You’ll learn much more from a real experiment than from hours of analysis.

The classic example of this is the pilot Agile team. Rather than a big “Agile rollout,” smart organizations identify a representative pilot to get quick learning before trying to scale across the org.

Leverage to Learn and Improve Faster

Good coaches, by the way, can give you leverage to learn and improve faster, whether at the individual, team, or org level. The best coaches can help you design better experiments—they understand the sequence of small moves that add up to big results. And they can give you useful feedback on your progress—they’ve seen a larger number of examples and recognize the patterns. So, if you’re in a situation where getting better quickly matters, where the stakes are high, consider using a coach as a lever.

A recent example we experienced…The executive team at a client of ours wanted to refresh their company mission and vision statements. Good mission and vision statements can create strong alignment and energy. A lot had changed for this company over the past few years, and they needed to clarify why their work matters to the world.

Now, this is a successful company, a leader in their industry, and the executive team is top-notch. They could have done a decent job on their mission and vision statements themselves. But they recognized they could have more leverage if they invited us in to coach them through the process. We’ve seen hundreds of these statements, both good and (mostly) bad. We’ve distilled what makes a good one. We know how to take a group from zero to writing a top 5% mission or vision statement very quickly. So, we helped them skip hours of trial and error. And the results were fantastic. They ended up with some of the best mission and vision statements we’ve seen. To be clear, they did the hard work. But they leveraged us as coaches to get faster cycles of practice and improvement than they could on their own.

Is there an area where you’d benefit from faster learning and improvement? Consider how you might design small experiments with fast feedback loops. And think about whether the stakes are high enough that it would be worth leveraging a coach to increase your speed and your likelihood of success.

Contact us if you’re interested in learning more about our coaching services.

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