Musicians and athletes do it, so should workers of all stripes. How to introduce practicing to the office.businessman-practicing

November 13, 2012

FORTUNE — Musicians practice. Athletes practice. They practice because they want to get better at what they do. You’d like to get better at what you do, too. But if your organization is like most, the word “practice” seldom comes up in anything beyond a discussion of kids’ after school schedules.

“Most business is full of tasks that people rarely get better at,” says Doug Lemov, a managing director of Uncommon Schools, a network of 32 charter schools, and author, with Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi, of Perfect Practice: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better. “Repeating a task daily isn’t practicing unless you add intentionality.”

Practice has a role in business, says Lemov, who with Woolway and Yezzi has trained 10,000 school leaders and teachers. “It’s a source of competitive advantage.” Just as teachers who practice good teaching techniques get better results from their students, people who practice negotiating or other business skills will perform better than those who don’t.

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So how do you go about practicing in your career? First, change your idea about what practice means. “The word practicing has had a rather bad name for a long time,” says Madeline Bruser, a Juilliard-trained pianist and teacher, and author of The Art of Practicing. “People think of it as this chore. There’s no joy in it. It’s a source of stress, struggle and strain and tension.” Better to think of practice as a form of play — just as musicians “play” their instruments — in which you learn to “better express yourself so your creative intelligence comes through. You get better at solving problems.” To do that, try these four steps:

1. Identify skills worth improving

Lemov and his co-authors suggest asking team members for lists of the top three skills people in your organization should practice. Examples include giving presentations, answering client questions, giving performance reviews, giving feedback in general, comparing your product to a competitor’s during sales calls, cold calling, writing in its various forms (PowerPoint slides, memos, emails, white papers, official letters), editing and delivering edits, running a meeting, data analysis, negotiation, estimating, interviewing, and so forth.

Lemov suggests practicing “anything that happens live that you can’t do it over again if it doesn’t go the way you want it to. We practice difficult conversations all the time.” Use your team members’ answers to create a short list of the skills you’d like to practice with the goal of mastery.

2. Create (and name) drills

Athletes do two main kinds of practice: scrimmage and drills. Scrimmages mimic game conditions, and seem like the obvious way to practice. If you’re teaching someone how to run a meeting, for instance, wouldn’t you have them run a mock meeting?

But while scrimmages have their place, the Practice Perfect authors point to evidence that drills are more effective. Drills isolate a skill and call for its repetition in a distorted form so you can focus on a specific skill. Rather than run a whole meeting, you practice answering questions from a clearly unhappy client. After each iteration of a mock unexpected client interjection, you get feedback, and repeat the iteration incorporating the feedback.

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Naming such drills creates both camaraderie within your team, and a shorthand way of letting people know, quickly, what to prepare for. Answering hostile client questions, for instance, might become known as “the gauntlet” drill. Halfway through a staff meeting, to shake things up, you might call on two people to do the gauntlet drill — a little way to squeeze in practice before people face down a disgruntled client for real.

3. Make practice a daily thing

Time is likely the biggest obstacle to implementing a culture of practice in any organization. In the firefight of daily life, no one wants to add one more thing to the to-do list. But practice has outsized returns. A great musician who ceased practicing would soon cease to be great, and an organization that does not focus on getting better will be outperformed by an organization not willing to stand still. “People crave it,” says Katie Yezzi of practice. “Once you start doing it people want to do it more. They want to get better at their jobs.”

Rather than carving out an hour for practice, incorporate it, as much as possible, into existing events and conversations. Model it yourself. Ask for feedback on how you ran a meeting or conducted a negotiation, and start by listing something you did wrong, to show people who report to you that critical feedback is expected.

4. Hire people who want to practice

Ultimately, creating a culture of improvement means hiring people who want to improve. Try giving feedback during an interview and see how a person responds. “If we interview two people and one is a 4 [out of 10] but is hungry to learn and eager for feedback, and is writing down feedback during the interview session, and the other is good — an 8 — but smug, we’ll take the 4 on the assumption they’ll pass the 8 in 18 months and take a lot of people with them,” says Lemov.

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As Lemov, Woolway, and Yezzi write in Practice Perfect, they’ve found that the top performers are inevitably “those who continue to strive, grow, and develop — in other words, they continue to practice.”

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