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How do you get better at the work you do? The case for practicing at work

It’s easy to take for granted the professional development that comes with, well … just working.

Take your first job, for instance. It was perfectly acceptable to learn the skills of working while you worked. Your employer accepted that as an entry-level employee there would be a period of learning before you were, as they say, up to speed.

Why step off the accelerator?

Are you ever skilled enough at running meetings, having difficult conversations, managing projects, collaborating with colleagues, or anything else important to you and your continuing development as a professional?

Yet for many of us, it becomes comfortable to amble along throughout our careers rarely working to become really good at skills core to the performance of our jobs in a conscientious way.

The OK Plateau

This is the OK Plateau.

And for just about all of your skills, it’s where you are.

The OK Plateau, so named by Joshua Foer, is the phase of learning where a skill becomes automatic. It’s the final phase of a skill acquisition framework proposed by psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner in 1967. They called it the autonomous phase and it’s the phase of learning where you’re using a skill and not thinking much about it.

Driving is a good example. You probably didn’t think much about your driving skills the last time you drove a car. That’s the autonomous phase.

But there was a time when you thought quite a lot about developing those skills.

That’s called the cognitive phase and it’s the first stage of skill development. You were developing knowledge and learning the explicit skills of driving: understanding road signs, the purpose of a turn signal, what the accelerator does, and the like.

The middle stage, associative, is the phase of applying your knowledge to develop a skill. It’s practice. It’s what you were doing when you first got behind the wheel and continued to do until you became so comfortable with driving that you stopped thinking much about the activity.

And once you were using the skill and not thinking much about it, you were on the OK Plateau.

The OK Plateau is a decidedly okay place to be. A skill that sits on the OK Plateau is one that has no obvious reason for any further improvement. It’s the place of competence. It’s good enough.

And being good enough at the set of skills required to do your job was good enough for nearly a hundred years.

Then it changed.

Working in Complexity

That’s not quite right. It’s been changing. It’s going to continue to change.

And that’s the point.

At the center of the change is our increasing awareness of complexity and, as it happens, working in a complex environment is starkly different than working in a complicated environment.

A complicated environment is predictable. So when a problem occurs you know exactly what to do. And if you’ve been working long enough, you probably have the knowledge required to solve the problem. That’s the work approach we’ve been using for the last decade.

In complexity, however, there is constant surprise. A problem in complexity is always new. It may share characteristics with previous problems, but something about it makes it different than any other problem that has been solved before. So when a problem occurs in a complex environment, no one knows exactly what the solution is, it must be figured out through action. Complexity requires a different approach to work altogether.

That approach is learning while working and more specifically: learning from doing.

It’s learning that can only happen as a result of applying new knowledge in practice. We try a course of action, we learn as a result of that activity, and then figure out what to do next.

In other words: practice.

But it isn’t just practice for the sake of practice, it’s practice for the purpose of pursuing mastery.

I define mastery as doing your job so damn well that other people take notice of your capabilities.

Dan Pink defined it as the desire to get better at something that matters.

“Mastery,” writes management exorcist (his description) Niels Pflaeging, “is the capability to solve new problems.”

And managing new problems in complexity is what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your long and brilliant career.

Taking Control of Your Career

The constant flow of new problems means intentionally getting better at the work you do isn’t just a good professional practice, it’s becoming a necessity.

And contrary to any belief you may have about “being developed,” the only person who can develop you is you.

Coaches, mentors, teachers, peers, bosses, and other social influences can be helpful, to be certain, but their assistance often misses the same essential step to learning that conferences, trainings, books, articles, and most other professional development activities miss, too: putting new knowledge into practice.

Work practice is a way to use all those new knowledge opportunities for what they are: starting points for trying a course of action.

Because to learn or improve a skill, it’s not enough to think it, you have to do it. Often over and over, getting a little better each time. That’s practice. A purposeful, focused, and systematic effort that requires preparation and self-reflection.

Sounds a little like the work you already do, doesn’t it?

Practicing at work gives you an intentional approach to learning from the work while you do the work.

And if you’re already doing the work, why not make it work for you, too?

Work Practice

Pursuing mastery through practice by applying new knowledge in practice is how you consistently learn and improve the skills required to manage new problems in complexity and make change happen in your career, your organization, and the industry.

With Work Practice: Develop a Practice Habit & Take Control of Your Career, you’ll be introduced to a proven system designed and developed to help you practice in the flow of the work you’re already doing.

Through seven lessons, each intended to be completed in under 15 minutes, you’ll learn:

  • Why our growing awareness of complexity and the dynamic work environment it creates demands a constant orientation toward learning
  • The theoretical foundation and practical importance of practice as a professional development activity, and
  • An evidence-based practice process and how to make practice a part of your daily work routine

After completing Work Practice, you’ll be using a purposeful, focused, and systematic approach to improving the professional skills important to you, all by spending a few minutes before doing the work and a few minutes after.

Florida State University professor Anders Ericsson’s research backs up the premise: deliberate practice will make you better at the work you do.

Here’s what he writes in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, “In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way. If you practice something for a few hundred hours, you will almost certainly see great improvement—but you have only scratched the surface. You can keep going and going and going, getting better and better and better. How much you improve is up to you.”

Does it sound unprofessional? It’s not because it’s required! There isn’t another way to work in complexity, which is discussed in the first lesson sent directly to your inbox following your purchase. Try, Learn, Adapt is all we have. In fact, treating complex problems as if they were complicated problems is only likely to make them worse.

Who could argue with a purposeful, focused, and systematic approach to work that includes preparation and self-reflection, anyway? Not anyone I want to work with.

Work Practice uses existing professional development efforts as the starting points they are, introduces a systematic process for moving off the OK Plateau for the skills we care about, and uses the most important professional development opportunity all of us participate in every hour of our work days: the work itself, all in the effort to improve the skills necessary for making change happen in your career, your organization, and the industry while you work.

Learn more about Work Practice: Develop a Practice Habit and Take Control of Your Career


That’s an endorsement of my weekly pep talk email from my good friend Jade. She’s trustworthy. She’s a healthcare person. And she’s working to make healthcare better through the work. I’m betting you’ll find it valuable every Wednesday, too.


My philosophy on email: Don’t send a bad one.


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