May 12 2006


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).