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December 11, 2012
3 Rules for Mastering New Skills
 
How do you start something new? Whether it’s an exercise program, a simple task you’ve left on the back burner, or creating a new business from scratch — how do you get started? Doing so can be very intimidating. And it’s the lack of starting that kills most projects. In his now classic article, “Small Wins,” Karl Weick argues that when goals seem overwhelming, they sap our intrinsic motivation. Here are three timeless rules for starting something new.
  • Start small. Weick finds that small wins are the key to motivation. So breaking skills down into chunks, small, modest steps that are achievable reduces fear, clarifies direction, and increases the probability we’ll succeed. Bob Sutton’s terrific book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, argues that “big, hairy, audacious goals” are not only unrealistic, but they are usually too obvious and too abstract to provide a path to success.
Furthermore, experiences of failure will have greater impact on us than experiences of success. One of the most revealing pieces of research finds that Bad is Stronger than Good. We study and process negative information far more than positive information and the bad produces larger, more consistent lasting effects than the good. Thus, to avoid the bad of those “big, hairy, audacious goals,” it’s important to set yourself up for success. And, as Sutton comments, “the path to success is paved with small wins.” Focus on the little things and the big things will get done.
 
Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer studied small wins to find out why they work and big goals don’t. They collected confidential personal stories from 238 white-collar workers at seven companies. After analyzing some 12,000 stories they found a surprising commonality. Work progress undergirds and drives motivation, which increases project success. It wasn’t salaries and bonuses. Making progress on a meaningful task ignites our creativity and productivity. We feel good after a success, no matter how small.
  • Reflect. A new job experience doesn’t necessarily promote significant learning. Instead, learning results only after we make sense and interpret our experience. Sensemaking is the process by which people give meaning to experience. Although little, with the exception of Karl Weick’s work, is written or discussed about sensemaking, we’ve been doing it all of our lives.
Sensemaking in the extreme happens when you encounter an event such as a battered child with injuries to the head, arms, and legs and parents who are trying to pretend it was a fault or an accident. You find yourself asking why this happened, what’s wrong with these parents, how could such behavior be tolerated? In short, you’re trying to make sense of that event.
 
Gaining an important skill, such as managing a new boss successfully, also requires a set of internal sensemaking questions. You ask your boss for a specific project, thinking that he’ll be quite willing to respond positively, but you’re met with a rejection. There’s a different set of cues, something that doesn’t fit. You look back over previous requests, searching for a plausible explanation of your boss’s behavior, and settle in on several possibilities and then try to manage him differently the next time. You may or may not be successful, but in either instance you’ve reflected on the surprising rejection. If you’re curious enough to figure out a different approach to managing your boss the next time, then you’re on the path to real learning. But the entire reflective process of sensemaking is key to that path. It may be a completely private matter or you may bring others into your process of reflection and sensemaking, soliciting their insights.     
  • Teach. Certainly personal observation and verbal feedback are highly useful means of confirming or reshaping our skill development, but nothing beats teaching skills to others. While personal feedback generates the energy towards constructive action, teaching others in a business setting is a far more personal and demanding task that places your skills as well as your reputation on the line. In teaching another we invest time, sweat, and commitment. It requires that we minimize interruptions, avoid distractions, plan ahead, establish facts and actions, and even determine performance standards.
For nearly 15 years, I coached, mentored, and taught the CEO and the associates of a major Twin Cities architectural firm, World Architects and Engineers. The CEO, Kevin Sullivan, was a piece of work: boisterous, obscene, transparent (when he wanted to be), demanding, fun, very strategic, and eminently coachable. He was the kind of executive to whom I could say openly, “You’re full of shit,” and he’d stop, roll his eyes and make me explain myself. In addition to my long-term coaching and mentoring of most of his associates, two or three times a year he’d engage me for the partner/associate meeting. He always had his own agenda. More often than not he wanted me to train people in a subject in which I felt inadequate. Initially, I’d often refuse, but he was merciless. My next two tactics were, “I’ve never done that before,” and then, “I don’t know whether that can even be done.” Typically, after fussing over the subject and arguing with him for two or three sessions, I always rolled as he knew I would, but always with the caveat to which he agreed, “OK Sullivan. But if I blow it, you’ll cover my ass.”
 
Every single session over those years succeeded, sometimes beyond our wildest dreams. But in each instance I worked through the training strategy, tactics, processes, content, group activities, and outcomes to the nth degree. By the time I got to the training session, I was fully ready for nearly every question, every push back, and even every possible breakdown. I could read the nonverbals, questions, subtexts, and misunderstandings. It was one of those situations that when challenged, I’d explain, think out loud, revise, agree with the challenge, and revise again — or wait for another associate to come to my defense, which inevitably happened.  
 
Candidly, those sessions provided as much — no, more — development for me than for my audience. It was not just that I gained new competencies, but even more that each time I reconfigured a fuller set of possibilities for myself and my career. In those sessions I clarified myself with experience and validation from others. I interpreted and incorporated the new information from them, adding colors and contours, tinting and shading and shaping as my choices helped me create the portrait of who I was becoming. Nothing institutionalizes a competency better than teaching that competency to others.
 
Talent has become the world’s most sought-after commodity. The consequence of this is that the balance of power is shifting from companies to their employees. These three straightforward rules are the fundamental means for professionals to make certain they become one of the successful and sought-after.

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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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