Practice Makes PerfectI read an article recently titled “At Work, Practice Puts Perfection in Reach,” written by Katie Yessi, who is the principal of a public charter elementary school (and also a co-author of the e-book Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better). I admit I was expecting an article about teaching young children.

Instead I discovered a thought-provoking perspective on how most of us in “professional” jobs view the idea of practice, and why we don’t often value the practice of practicing nearly as much as we should.

Worried about how to handle the upcoming midyear review of a struggling teacher, Katie decided to do a few “practice reviews” with her managing director. The sessions gave her the opportunity to test and refine her language, get and incorporate impartial feedback, clarify her message, and gain the confidence to communicate clearly and calmly. The review she’d been dreading went well – she and the struggling teacher were able to have a constructive conversation with a pleasant outcome.

Then, like we all do, she got a bit of the “yeah, I’ve got this down” attitude. She went into a second review, this time expecting to do an easy, positive review for one of her stronger teachers, so she assumed there was no need to practice. Thing did not go as planned, the teacher got defensive, Katie got flustered, and it was not a productive process.

The result was that she realized she needed to change her own perspective about the purpose of practicing. She explained, “I realized that I had imagined practice mainly as a tool for dealing with poor performance. But it can also be important for strong employees, who stand to give so much back.”

That got me wondering: how often is end user training perceived as a way to “fix” performance issues rather than as a tool to make workers feel competent, confident and valued?

“In other performance professions, like music or sports,” Katie explains, “the top performers always keep practicing — alone and together. It’s understood as crucial to staying at the top of their game. I had fallen into the trap of assuming that practice was a tool to avoid disasters, as opposed to a way to maximize positive outcomes.”

The difference may seem subtle but it’s not. For example, I’ve been rowing competitively for many years, starting in college. I practice a lot – and push myself hard – not because I’m not good enough and need fixing, but because I want to get better, to contribute to my team, and to be a strong competitor. I push to improve my speed, my rhythm, my strength, my technique. And I’m very motivated because I love to win. For these reasons, my perception of rowing practice is positive, not negative.

As learning professionals, we have all kinds of tools and systems – simulations, job aids, eLearning programs, Knoa, WPB, and more – to help users practice their skills. But how often do we really think about the process from their point of view? Do they see our programs as a kind of remedial education designed for those who don’t quite measure up? Or do they perceive us as dedicated coaches who are vested in helping them grow and reach their full potential? And what can we do to manage whether they get a positive or negative impression?

Yes, ROI is important. But human factors are important, too. The impression we make on users, even unconsciously, affects how well our learning programs are received. Workers who feel respected and valued are more satisfied and more productive – and that also contributes to the bottom line.

In her discussion of the importance of practicing, Katie Yessi says, “Now I see it as one of the only things that will keep helping me grow as a professional and add value to my organization.” Doesn’t that sound much more appealing than the ways we usually talk about the goals of our projects?

To make learning programs more valuable from our users’ perspective, we need to start finding common ground. We all want to be successful and we all love to win. Getting there together is simply good practice.