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Skills training: key to getting better at anything.

How to get better at anything – sports, music, law or legal project management?

There is a considerable body of evidence which says the answer lies in skills training and development.

Proper skills training and development can help with any field of endeavour and I think this is particularly relevant to project management.

Successful project management requires the consistent application of methods, techniques and skills.

Practitioners with advanced project management skills increase the likelihood of successful outcomes in projects of all kinds, including legal matters.

How then to best acquire and develop project management skills?


Research findings about skills training and development

In his book ‘Peak’ Professor Anders Ericsson (along with Robert Pool) provides a very readable explanation of his research findings about skills development.  I highly recommend reading Peak as it contains a lot of thought provoking ideas and information.

Before going further, I should point out that Professor Ericsson’s work was said to provide the theoretical basis for the so-called 10,000 hour rule, promoted by Malcolm Gladwell and others.

At its baldest the 10,000 hour rule states that for people to become truly exceptional performers, they must put in 10,000 hours of practising skills relevant to their area of expertise.

Assuming practice time of 2 hours per day during a 5 day week, it would take about 10 years to complete 10,000 hours of practice.  The level of expertise being discussed in this context is often in the realm of Olympic class athletes or world-renowned musicians.

All well and good except that most of us simply want to get better at what we do, and we don’t have the time or resources available to spend the next 10 years practising.


A more effective approach to skills training and development

There is in fact no such thing as a 10,000 hour rule according to Professor Ericsson.  Practising the same thing over and over is ‘a recipe for stagnation and gradual decline’.  The total number of hours is less important than how each hour is used.

The rules, such as they are, around skills training and development are much more subtle and interesting than the premise of the 10,000 hour rule implies.  (Although for the avoidance of doubt, in order to become a world-renowned expert in a field it is still necessary to put in many thousands of hours of practice).

What follows is a summary of Professor Ericsson’s book and my understanding of what might be called the ‘Ericsson Framework’ (my phrase, not his).

This high level framework sets out a road-map for efficient and effective skill development.  To achieve this trainees should:

  1. Acquire and develop ‘mental representations’ of the skills in question
  2. Engage in ‘deliberate practice’ of the skills required
  3. Work with a good trainer / coach.


Mental Representations

The first step towards effective skills development is building an accurate mental representation of what is needed to execute the skill properly.

Mental representations are built up by means of a feedback loop.  As skills are practiced our brains learn to recognise what successful execution of the skill looks, sounds and feels like.

With practice, our success rate at a skill increases.  Effective mental representation requires a full understanding of the skill in question, so the skill can be applied with a degree of flexibility and adaptability.


Deliberate Practice

The concept of deliberate practice lies at the core of Professor Ericsson’s work.  There are several elements to it:

  1. Break the skill being practiced down into a series of smaller steps or tasks
  2. Practice each step, starting with the smallest / simplest  / most basic one
  3. After mastering a step, introduce increasing levels of complexity into the practice by adding more steps.

Probably the most important element of deliberate practice is for trainees to stretch themselves or allow themselves to be stretched.  Trainees should be taken out of their immediate comfort zone, but not so far out they cannot master the step being practised.

Each step should gradually build upon the previous one.  Each subsequent step should be harder to master than the earlier one.  Gradually, trainees go through the steps and develop greater competence.


Find a good trainer / coach

Professor Ericsson notes that trainees of all kinds make the most rapid improvements if they are trained and coached by someone who is an expert in the field.

The coach should have already gone through the process of building up accurate mental representations of the skill-set and practiced the skills successfully themselves.

The coach must also be capable of teaching the skills step by step and provide constructive feedback to trainees.


An example of my own personal skills development

I joined my local Toastmasters club as I wanted to improve my communication skills.

Like everyone at Toastmasters I have been working through programmes of set speech types, each with an increasing order of difficulty.  At the end of each speech, speakers receive immediate brief written feedback from everyone in the room.  After a speech, longer and more specific feedback is presented by someone who has the job of evaluating the speech.

Everyone at my club is assigned a mentor to help with their personal development.  Some club members are professional speakers who earn their living by giving speeches and coaching others in public speaking.  As you can imagine, these are excellent mentors.

In light of points made earlier in this article, all this should sound familiar.  I have found that the Toastmasers skills development programme – something very similar in approach to the Ericsson Framework – really does work.


Continuous improvement

Inspired by my Toastmasters learning experience and Peak, I apply the Ericsson Framework when training legal project management.

I help my students acquire accurate mental representations, guide them during deliberate practice in the workshops and exercises and provide constructive feedback.

In turn, I always ask my students to provide me with feedback about my performance.  After a course I read through the feedback forms and implement as many suggestions for improvement as I can on the next course.

This also works.  Satisfaction scores do increase from course to course.  Feedback from my last course averaged a satisfaction score of 4.5, where 1 = poor and 5 = excellent.


Unlimited potential

The most exciting thing for me when reading Peak was the following:

the right sort of practice can help pretty much anyone improve in just about any area they choose to focus on.  We can shape our own potential.

The scope for our skill development is not limited.  Nor is it ever too late to learn new skills and improve existing ones.

Success comes to those who build up accurate mental representations, conduct deliberate practice and engage a good trainer / coach.

In my next post I will suggest some ideas for transferring skills learned during training into the day-to-day working environment.

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