Category Archives: Learning

How to Coach Increasing Competence

“Sustained, discretionary effort. That’s what we are after,” I said. “The training period requires more attention and focus from the manager. But as time passes and new behaviors become competent skills, the reinforcement changes.

“In the beginning, the manager has to overcome push-back and fear of failure. But, as the new behavior turns to competence, the issues change.”

“So, what does the manager do differently?” asked Travis.

“Lots of things, but let’s start with the easy stuff. In the beginning, the manager may reinforce good old fashioned effort. But as time goes by and the effort becomes accomplished, the manager changes to reinforce a specific sequence. As the specific sequence becomes accomplished, the manager may reinforce speed or efficiency.

“Let’s go back to our example of the video game. Modern game designers structure training sequences into the lower levels of the game. Leveling up requires certain fundamental skills be demonstrated. Once accomplished, the player is introduced to more complex scenarios where mastery of the fundamentals must already exist. Each level becomes increasingly complex. The schedules of reinforcement change, but the principle remains the same. What gets reinforced gets repeated.”

Performance Improvement Depends on This

“Have you ever watched a parent teach their child to walk?” I asked.

“Yeah. I have a niece that is learning to walk. Her parents go goo-gah regularly, but still it’s a wobbly process.”

“Does a parent ever say – No, that’s not the way to do it, let me show you. Don’t fall down like that?”

“Well, no. They just get all excited, clap their hands and gurgle baby talk.”

“Somewhere along the way, we lose our natural instincts in the training process. Behavior that is reinforced gets repeated. The two elements that were missing from your training last year were practice and immediate positive reinforcement.

“Initial attempts at a new skill or new behavior are usually terrible, but that’s not the point. Your job as a manager is to get excited and encourage. Put people in a place where they can try again and get better.

“Look, Travis. When do parents give up encouraging their child to walk?”

Travis was still mentally drawing lines in the analogy. “They never stop, I guess. Only when the kid learns to walk.”

Special Practice

“You did some training last year, tell me about it.”

“Well, first, we invested a decent budget. This was a new process we were working on. We spent a lot of time looking at different programs. We put together a decent PowerPoint, even hired an outside trainer.” Travis stopped.

“And?” I said.

“And, after all was said and done, a lot more was said than done.” Travis chuckled. “I heard that in a seminar once. But maybe it’s true. After the training, some of the people worked the new way, but some didn’t. Over time, the whole process was abandoned. ”

“You know your program really didn’t have a chance. It was missing something critical,” I said.

“I know, you are going to say positive reinforcement, but we all talked it up and everyone got a certificate when the training was over,” Travis defended.

“That’s all very nice, but I am not talking about being nice. I am talking about being effective. In the training you demonstrated a new process. This new process required a new skill, a new behavior.

“Travis, I can show you how to throw a ball, but if you want to get good at it what do you have to do?”

Travis looked puzzled, “Practice?” he said.

I nodded. “Very special practice.”

Things I Don’t Know

“The biggest change for me,” said Renee, “is that I have to spend time learning. I thought I finished learning when I finished school. I was wrong. Things I learned today weren’t invented when I was in school.”

Renee paused and looked around the table. “I have to keep an open mind that there are things I don’t know. There are things we do that can be done better. There are new ways to reach our customers. There are new ways for our customers to reach us.

“There are new products in our market that are better than our products. We have to see where we need improvement. We have to keep an open mind that we can always get better.

“The main thing is, I can’t keep coming to work every day, thinking, all there is to do, is the work. If I want to be more effective, I have to keep learning.”

Or You Can Be Curious

If you are in situation with another person, who disagrees with you, you can respond in one of two ways. You can be frustrated that they disagree. You can attempt to persuade them to your way of thinking. You can impugn their intelligence.

Or you can be curious. What led them to their position of disagreement? What evidence do they see in the world that you don’t see? What other people did they listen to, that influenced their thinking? What consequences might occur if their position turns out to be a better description of reality?

Making Mistakes

Do people learn more from success or failure?

For me, it is always failure. I learn the most from my mistakes.

Success, for me often breeds arrogance. How does the saying go – the worst thing that can happen to a golfer is to have a great day on the greens.

It is our mistakes, our failures where we learn the most. For a manager and a team member, learning cannot be an exercise of micro-management, but one of failure and mistakes.

So, if we learn more from mistakes, how do we teach people to fly a plane? Mistakes cost life and limb. Mistakes can be fatal.

As a manager, you have to manage the risk in project work. We teach people to fly in simulators, where they can make mistakes, learn, make more mistakes and learn. We learn more from one mistake than we do from a dozen successes.

Underperformance and Overperformance

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

I was curious about a study in IT that showed that while managers can see underperformance, they can’t see who is over-performing.

Response:

Actually, the results of the study may be correct, however, the conclusion may be flawed.

The results show that managers easily recognize or identify underperformance, but they do not as easily recognize or identify over-performance. The conclusion is that managers do not have the ability to recognize over-performance. I believe that to be false.

Managers do not recognize or identify over-performance because they do not focus on it. Managers allow the distractions of underperformance to dominate their vision and efforts.

It is simply a matter of focus. It is a conscious choice to focus on over-performance, and once that decision is made, the focus becomes quite natural. But it’s that choice that is difficult. It is too easy (unconscious) to see things wrong and too difficult to make the conscious choice to see things going right. -Tom

The Attractiveness of Work

“What is it that this game has, that is so attractive to your son, that he will go without food, water and sleep, in spite of discouragement from his mom (manager)?” I asked. “Your son has achieved a high level of competence in this video game without the traditional trappings of learning, without the traditional trappings of inducement. Yet he continues to play hard.”

“Well, for one thing, it must be fun, it’s play, not work,” Jamie explained.

“And, as a manager, what can we take from that, when we think about our teams and their behavior?”

“Yes, but work isn’t all that much fun,” Jamie protested. “People don’t like work. They like play, but they don’t like work.”

“Jamie, I have looked at your son playing a video game and it doesn’t look all that different than what some of your people do at work. They both sit at a keyboard, staring at a computer screen. As they touch the keys, things move on the screen.”

“I don’t see your comparison, they are two different things.”

“But if you could see the comparison, what would you see?”

Jamie had to think, but she finally spoke. “In the mind of my son, he is part of something bigger than himself, trying to achieve certain levels in the game. As he makes progress, he gets real-time feedback (automatically), so he can adjust his play. When he makes the level, there is a small electronic celebration on the screen.”
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Leaving Shanghai today, bound for San Francisco. Quick trip around the world in five days.

Didn’t Do It For the Money

The conversation was now personal. We talked about Jamie’s son and his behavior related to a video game. We had established that he never attended a training program, never read a training manual, was discouraged from learning the game by his manager (Jamie, his mom). Furthermore, in spite of all these front-end adverse conditions, he achieved a high level of mastery, in playing the game.

“So, Jamie, you also told me that you did not pay your son a bonus when he achieved certain levels within the game?”

Jamie started with a chuckle, but it quickly turned to an outright laugh. “You clearly don’t know my son. Paying him to play a video game is not part of our family culture. That would be a bit over the top. As his mom (manager), I would have to be crazy. He doesn’t play the game for money.”

“What? Teenagers don’t have expenses?” I asked.

“That’s not the point,” Jamie explained. “He doesn’t play for money.”

“So, what does he play for? What does he get from the game that has caused him to spend hours achieving a high level of competence, without external inducements for his performance?”

“Well, he must be getting some internal reward for it.” Jamie guessed.

“And how would describe that internal reward? What is it?”

“Motivation?”

I nodded. “Yes, motivation, and here is where the conversation gets interesting.”
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First day in Shanghai. This place is very Chinese.

Sacrificing Sleep and Food

“So, what gives?” Jamie asked. “Our company spends a lot of its resources on training, planning, development programs. Why do they always seem to run out of gas? You suggest we are missing something on the back end.”

“When I look at behavior, I think we, as managers, truly miss the boat. We are always looking at the front end of the behavior instead of the back end. And the back end, the consequences of behavior, are much more powerful drivers than the front end.”

“I am not sure what you mean,” Jamie responded.

“Jamie, you have a teenager at home, right?”

“Oh, yeah, somewhere in his room, beneath the glow of some Realm vs Realm computer game, I think there is a teenager in there somewhere.”

“Tell me, how complicated is that video game?”

“Oh, boy, I can’t make heads or tails of it. When I look at that screen, there is so much stuff going on, including multiple chat channels, voice over the Internet, status panels, swords, animals, shields, walking, running, flying, transporting, vaporizing.”

“So, to learn how to play that game, you must have sent your son to an expensive training class?” I asked.

Jamie started to laugh. “Are you kidding? He just sat in there for hours and hours, without eating or sleeping. I don’t know how he learned it, but it wasn’t from a training class.”

“You mean, you didn’t encourage him. You didn’t bring in a motivational speaker. You didn’t make him practice?”

“No way, quite the opposite. We discourage him from playing the game, sometimes we even ground him from playing.”

“So, let me get this straight,” I began, “your son has learned to play a computer game at an extremely high level of competence, without going to a single training program. Sometimes he skips meals and sleep to continue playing this game. He does it in spite of his manager’s (mom’s) discouragement. Everything that has been done, up front, violates everything we know about competence and mastery. So, what’s happening?”
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At this moment, I am likely in the air between Vienna, Austria and Shanghai, China. Presenting to two groups of managers on Levels of Work.