Why Isn't Practice Practiced in the Workplace?

Peyton Manning may be the greatest football player of all time, but not because he overwhelms opponents with his physical talents.

He’s renowned for his study habits and the way he rigorously breaks down opponent film. He self scouts. He works with position coaches to refine his already near perfect mechanics and his elite understanding of the game. So you’d think a player like Manning wouldn’t need structured practice. He knows the playbook like he wrote it. He’s seen every blitz package and every coverage disguise a defensive coordinator could possibly throw at him. He’s the gold standard at his position.

But the man shows up to practice the same way he did in his rookie year. He attacks every rep, every drill, every scrimmage as if it were the final play of the Super Bowl. He takes practice seriously as an opportunity to hone his craft even though he’s already a master.

He’s a living blueprint for what it takes to become great.

Not a Manning fan? People say all the same things about Brady, Jordan, Montana, Gretzky, Unitas. Take your pick. All the greats share this approach.

But in the business world, practice is a foreign concept. We think of it as something that’s only useful for performers: athletes, musicians, actors. Sure, we practice our presentations. We practice pitches and speeches and other one-time affairs. But that’s really just rehearsing. That’s not practice.

We don’t practice marketing. We don’t practice accounting or sales or finance. We’re often thrown into the fire after a brief orientation period and expected to produce consistent results until we leave our position. A lot of people “age out” of their careers because they never make the time to get better. At some point, someone younger and cheaper comes along that can do the same work.

Granted, a lot of us get better naturally through experience and repetition, but maybe that’s not enough. It’s not enough for Peyton Manning. It wasn’t enough for Michael Jordan. And it shouldn’t be enough for us.

Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become a master, but not just any 10,000 hours. There’s a difference between time spent on purposeful improvement and time spent scrambling to get deliverables out the door. If we want to be great, we have to find a way to balance the two.

Look, companies want to get paid for the work their employees do. They want workers working for eight hours a day, not working for six and practicing for two. But wouldn’t it be in the best interest of their growth to establish some kind of structured practice? Some kind of framework to help their employees become better at their jobs?

There’s no easy answer here. There just doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day to do it all. But it’s worth thinking about. It’s worth striving for.

The blueprint for how to become exceptional is all around us, and it starts with practice.

We just have to figure out how to make the time.

Written by Brian Easter on March 11, 2014


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I agree with everything said, but it all comes down to the mighty dollar. In short practice doesn't pay off or not immediately as most companies would like. We live in the generation of instant gratification and reward, and most companies measure their success on revenue, which is a good indicator of how the business is doing but not the employees'.

@Brian you ask @Chris to offer up some ideas I would like to add one as well, one word "Autonomy". Dan Pink explained it brilliantly in his TED talk The Puzzle of Motivation. He went on to explain how old business models create a culture of compliance while decreasing engagement and creativity. He also spoke of a Australian software company called Atlassian and how they would a few times out of the year tell their teams to go work on anything they wanted to, NOT pertaining to their job. They were given complete control over their resources, the team, time and task to work on. In doing so they increased engagement and creativity and fixed a number of problems within the company that might not have existed before.

Now some would say this is a bit radical, or even unimaginable in their case; but is it radical to increase engagement and creativity from within and not just not “Leadership”? I also stumbled upon a book from C.C. Chapman called Amazing Things Will Happen that also touch on a lot of the same topics (very interesting read).

I love the idea of practice, being a former collegiate athlete my coach always told us about the importance of practice and how it will carry over into our performance. They summed it up to the 6P's "Perfect Practice Prevents Piss Poor Performance".

David Phillips says:

Good stuff. This brings to mind a passage from the book, Switch: How to Make Change Happen When Change Is Hard. "From the business perspective, practice looks like poor execution." The organizations who provide their people with the time, space, and political cover to make little bets, experiment, and practice are the ones who will sustain success.


David Papa says:

Really interesting point. To make it happen it's almost like companies need to provide employees with low-stakes activities to practice on that are still productive.

For example, maybe new marketers can practice on internal initiatives, like HR initiatives.

But maybe we can tie this to innovation. What if companies made cross-disciplinary teams to launch innovation experiments at a micro scale? As practice for bigger stakes. Companies want to innovate, and they need to start tiny to make the risk manageable. I'm talking about extremely low resource levels devoted to tiny tests of minimally viable products. If more companies made this type of endeavor a regular occupancy, maybe they would have both practice opportunities and more innovation successes?

@ Drew - thanks for the feedback and comments. And I agree - it's a tough problem to solve. Short-term thinking and deliverables balance against long-term growth.

@ Chris - I definitely agree with you as well. I would love any ideas you have on how to incorporate practice into our daily schedules. Thanks for the thoughts and comments!

Good article. For Web Developers, we have a good many opportunities to practice and learn...usually after-hours, though. We are always floating new techniques and tools here at nebo.

The problem that I see with practicing your profession is that upper management (those holding the purse strings and schedule) don't typically budget for practice. Plus, in most organizations, there's usually little-to-no allowance for failure (failure is the bread & butter of practice, right?).

I agree there are no easy answers for this. The practicing mentality requires more patience and eyes on a long-term goal, even at the expense of profits made in the short term.

The way you describe business mentalities remind me of when I was running track in college. I had a season where an injury put me out for the majority of the season, meaning I had missed a lot of our base, high-mileage training that happens early in the year. Since I came back very close to our post-season meets, my coach "raced me into shape." I couldn't go back and retroactively make up for all the mileage I missed but instead had to run a lot of races in a short time to get up to speed as quickly as possible.

It appears that businesses try to "race their employees into shape" - a decent short-term tactic but doesn't do much to build a foundation for long-term success.

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Written by
Brian Easter