Focus on the Craft

April 2, 2010 by
Filed under: People, Quality 

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell provides a rule of thumb that people will get good at their craft after they have spent 10,000 hours plying it. He talks about the Beatles and their years in small clubs in Germany, Mozart and his long tenure in music, and describes the early years of Bill Joy and Bill Gates as well. I’ve heard similar 250,000 word rules for writing (I’m well past that mark and think there’s still lots to learn), and the practice time put in by some of the sports greats is legendary. Seems there is something to all this: that time – lots of time – is an important part of becoming good at something. Raw talent or innate genius will only get you so far.

Putting in the time, though, isn’t always enough.

I know I have been playing squash for about 30 years now, and if we figure a couple of hours a week over that time, I’m maybe a third of the way to that apparently magical threshold. That stated, I know today that the elements of my game that hold me back are the same ones that held me back decades ago: overall fitness, shot selection, court sense. I’ve improved in a few areas, I’ve got a few preferred shots that serve me well, but I haven’t really gained much ground over the years. The problem is that in all that time on the court, I have almost exclusively played games. I enjoy the competition of matches, I abhor what I know I need, which is drills and improvement in general fitness. Dropping a few pounds wouldn’t hurt either.

In the heat of battle, whether in a squash court or at the workplace, it is very difficult to separate the work that needs to be done from any focus on improving the craft of what you are doing. Certainly in 10,000 hours there will be a few insights gleaned and a few skills honed, and in the workplace we accrue another 10,000 every 5 years or so. It is also pretty clear that if everyone attained mastery of their craft after merely putting in that 5 years worth of time, any industry we are in would be in far better shape than it is today.

What is needed is investment in practice and reflection, at the individual and team level.

There are far too many teams that never take this time to ask themselves how to do a better job, just as I’d prefer to play matches with the little court time I get these days. In the workplace, there is always more work to be done than there is available time, and many projects turn out in such a way that we would prefer to forget they ever happened than to reflect and learn from the experience. Unfortunately, as I know from my squash game, this dooms us to re-living that experience, over and over again.

We need to be able to step back, consciously, and ask ourselves how we can improve our game. Retrospectives are superb for driving the team forward with better insights for the next cycle, stepping back and looking how a task was completed can provide insights, even stopping halfway through a meeting and considering how your time could be better spent there can be of great value.

I have no doubt that time spent with a focus on the craft is essential for individuals and teams to dramatically improve. Mastery will never arrive solely on the back of the ongoing day-to-day efforts to get product out the door, no matter how many multiples of 10,000 hours you put in.

How much time do you invest in focusing on the craft of what you do? How much does your team invest? Is this enough focused time for you to expect improvement, or is it more realistic to expect similar experiences, project after project? – JB

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