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My father always said, “If you had time to do it right the second time, you had time to do it right the first time.” Good leaders say, “To get it right the first time, you have to practice before the first time.” And great leaders say, “That went well, let’s take a look at what went right and wrong and see what we can do to make it better next time,” as they conduct a rigorous and rankless debrief.
The concept of practice and rehearsal is one we often associate with performance activities, most notably sports and the arts. We don’t think twice about the long hours a musician dedicates to practice. Nor do we question why a professional sports team practices throughout the year. Professionals, in whatever endeavor, practice to enable performance at a truly superior level. So, if they are that good at what they do, and have been doing it all their life, why do they need to practice? Especially late in the season when they know each other and are getting ready to go to the championships. Why watch the game films from last week? Deep down, we know the answer. We all know that regular and realistic practice, coupled with a solid critique, sets the stage for success at the highest levels.
Unfortunately, the concept of practice often conjures pictures from our youth of a taskmaster conducting monotonous drills at our expense and to our misery. Wind sprints, multiplication tables, and musical scales are generally not part of our fondest memories. So, as adults we do not have favorable thoughts when we think about practice. And yes, some of what we must practice as adults certainly isn’t fun or glamorous.
Beyond the emotional baggage of practice, there are other reasons we don’t place high value on these essential elements of successful performance. We often perceive ourselves as too busy to practice. The corporate environment often looks at rehearsing, or training, as a waste of time that could be better spent producing revenue. People may not take it seriously, because of poor execution, in which case it does become a waste of time. Or people don’t do a thorough debrief so there is no learning, again, a waste of time. The most successful leaders and the most successful organizations make rehearsal and practice integral to the planning and operations process. No surprise, the success rate of these groups is usually higher than the groups that don’t practice.
Practicing the basics can seem redundant. At some point, we think we know the task so well that we might not need to practice anymore. Yet, that behavior is a poor example for those still learning the process. Also, true expertise lies in the ability to apply the concepts and execute the basics while thinking about other things that are going on. For example, a quarterback doesn’t “think” how he is going to throw the ball as he drops back to pass and reads the defense. That part of the task has become second nature, but only after years of practice.
Practice is for everyone. Leaders lose credibility when they don’t fully participate or when they merely go through the motions. This behavior sends three very negative messages to people. One, I am better than you and I don’t have to do this. Two, this isn’t really that important but you have to do it anyway. Three, when it comes to “game time” I may not be ready because I did not practice.
Debrief what went well and what you should continue to do, and share that information. Also debrief what went wrong and what should be changed, and share that information also. Critical analysis and review of the facts is essential, as is full and fair treatment for all players. When this procedure is regularly followed, people actually look forward to the accountability. They know the good and the bad will be addressed. They know no one will be called on the carpet or ridiculed. They know the sessions are for learning and development, and they come prepared to contribute for the good of all participants.
Don’t even attempt to do the things outlined here unless you are willing to make the commitment to execute them well. To do differently sends the signal that you really don’t care. If you don’t care, I guarantee that your subordinates will not care. You cannot accomplish great things with a disinterested workforce. You can achieve greatness with one that believes in continuous improvement that starts at the top.