The world of successful entrepreneurs seems like an impenetrable fortress shrouded in the glitz and glamour accorded by the corporate world and media alike. Entrepreneurship is often considered as a vehicle for upward social mobility – but an exclusive vehicle only privy, presumably, to the most tenacious and purpose-driven few.

Fortunately, at present, advances in socio-cognitive psychology are being applied to this study of how entrepreneurs think and we are able to draw insights that may prove beneficial for the everyday man to corporate businessmen to fellow aspiring entrepreneurs.

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Deliberate Practice vs. Experience – Knowing what you do vs. Doing what you know

person using computer on brown wooden table

Conventional wisdom might dictate that inherited talents or extensive experience would lead to exceptional performance. However, research has proven otherwise. So what exactly propels one to reach exceptional performance?

The answer has been encapsulated by basketball superstar, Michael Jordan, “I’m not out there sweating for three hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat.” It is this highly repeated concentrated and carefully focused effort, known as deliberate practice, which holds the key to expert performance. This strategy differentiates the novice from the expert and involves the following key features:

  • It is mentally-demanding and requires high-levels of focus and concentration. The person must be fully absorbed in his/her efforts to improve and focus the task at hand for it to be effective.
  • Areas of weakness must be identified and worked on for improvement.
  • It must be repeated and continue for long periods of time. It requires at least 10 years or 10,000 hours of continued, vigorous effort.
  • It requires continuous feedback of results from others or the tasks itself. In this regard, setting goals, specific and related to the task, would be important as well.
  • It involves a lot of metacognition such as self-observation and self-reflection as well as performance reflection after practice sessions are completed.

But I’m a busy businessman: Deliberate practice for the hustling entrepreneur

It is highly impractical to expect working professionals to schedule deliberate practice above and beyond their hectic jobs.

On this note, Peter Fadde and Gary Klein offered a promising and practical solution for business people who are limited by time constraints but are keen to accelerate improvements in their performance. To them, the notion of deliberate practice should be extended to include learning activities that allows professionals and business people to raise their level of competency and build expertise on-the-job. They call it: deliberate performance.  It should fulfill the following criteria:

  • Be tied to everyday job performance without adding excessive time
  • Not impinge on the performance of the job task at hand
  • Offer varied repetitions with timely feedback
  • Not require expert judgement for feedback

Fadde and Klein proposed that there are four types of deliberate performance exercises that meet these criteria: estimation, experimentation, extrapolation, and explanation. For the purposes of this article, I will summarise the key ideas behind each type. For more details, you can access this paper here.  

man wearing white top using MacBook

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Firstly, estimation of time or resources needed to complete a task or a project is an important skill and estimation exercises helps improve awareness of interrelated elements in a task or work environment. The estimation exercise was drawn from a US Marine workshop on intuitive decision making. A good way to practice estimation is to estimate the time taken for each agenda item or estimate on a scale of 1-5 the degree the resolution that each item will receive during a business meeting.

Secondly, experimentation is probably the most important learning process we engage in as it develops reflection-in-action. There are 3 experimentation strategies: exploratory experiments where you probe and play to get a feel of things; move-testing experiments in which a person takes an action in order to produce an intended change; and hypothesis testing which tries out and compares competing hypotheses. These experimentations will strengthen your mental models and expand your knowledge base.

Thirdly, extrapolation refers to the way people recycle prior incidents, including examples they have heard from others, to extract lessons learned. These “woulda -coulda,-shoulda” ruminations are rich, if unpleasant, opportunities to reflect on alternative strategies on what could be done better.

Fourthly, explanation is routinely pursued by professionals who want to improve their performance and domain expertise. The primary interest of explanation is generating more opportunities for reflective explanation, either internally by individuals or team members.

Example: Application of Deliberate Performance to Improve Presentation Skills

  • Estimation: Predict the audience reactions to various parts of the presentation. Watch a colleague present and predict if they will run out of presentation time or the audience’s attention
  • Experimentation: Give the same presentation with and without slides. Try different examples to see audience reactions
  • Extrapolation: Observe the moments when audience members lose interest in a presentation and extrapolate that moment to imagine the worst-case scenario in which they walk out
  • Explanation: Seek explanations from typical target audience members on the feedback of your presentation or presentations that you have observed together.

Experts are always made, not born

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, published in 2006, holds 900 pages worth of contributions from more than 100 leading scientists who have studied expertise and top performance. No matter the domain being investigated, from surgery to fire fighting to acting, the conclusions were the same: experts are always made, not born.

It is not so much important for an entrepreneur to achieve elite levels of performance in a specific skill than it is to aspire and attain levels of performance far above the typical in a host of skills that are critical to the stage of your career.

Be it improving pitching to investors and venture capital firms or opportunity recognition and evaluation of venture performance to being an effective leader of your organisation, there are strategies available that allow you to succeed just as long as you are willing to work hard in specific and carefully directed ways.

This article is an abridged version of the article “Experts are made, not born: Strategies for the busy entrepreneur” that first appeared on SYNC.

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