A Formula for Expert Performance? Peter Keen shares insights from a career in elite sport.
How do you create an unstoppable team full of highly skilled, highly motivated, happy people? Peter Keen shares his approach to developing performance excellence grounded in a career working with elite athletes in international high performance sport.
Where did the thinking behind your formula for high performance come from?
Primarily from experience. Although there is a mass of academic research on the topic of expert performance, some of which I have used to challenge and refine my thinking. I was trying to simplify a topic that can be overcomplicated and to splice it with practical insights on what I believe makes the difference.
How do you define an ‘expert performer’?
It’s someone who consistently reproduces an objectively superior performance compared to the majority of their peers, time after time, in tasks that are widely acknowledged to define achievement in a given field of endeavour.
Objectivity is the key here – you’ve got to be able to describe what great performance is, and to be able to measure it in ways that show how experts repeatedly and reliably outperform others. In sport this is easy – it is designed to do exactly this but in business it can be harder. Take stock market traders for example. It’s a domain with so many variables, many of which are random (eg. weather, political turmoil, etc.) that it is extremely unlikely an individual can master reading all the cues consistently better than most others. There is little evidence that over an extended period individuals consistently outperform the market overall, so it is interesting that performance is typically cited as the reason for extraordinary salaries in this sector! Conversely, there are occupations – ranging from surgery to sales – where there are fewer random factors and more defined trainable skills, and thus specific cues that over time experts can learn to read more accurately.
In any field, to develop high performing individuals and teams, you need to be able to identify what the domain-specific markers are that truly define accomplishment. For the leaders who come on Connect, I suspect this is mostly going to be about either managing complex processes or complex human dynamics.
Let’s look at the first box in the formula, Talent, what are you talking about here?
While specific training and culture are massively important you first must look at the characteristics of people that are ready, willing and able to go on the long development journeys required to become true expert performers. It’s an on-going area of debate and enquiry, but I’m firmly of the view that even in sport it’s mostly about psychological factors, especially things that effect motivation and adherence to the thousands of hours of training required to attain true mastery. Most people tend to think in sport it’s about having a physical advantage arising from a genetic predisposition, but I don’t see the evidence for that being very strong, either scientifically or anecdotally.
When it comes to talent, or aptitude as I would prefer to call it, I believe there are two fundamental components at play. The first is what has been termed the “rage to master”; an unusually high level of motivation to attain high ability in tasks. It’s been explored in sport research and there’s evidence to suggest that in many cases it is traceable to difficult early childhoods. At UK Sport we commissioned an extensive study that looked at the life stories of 16 multi-gold medal winning individuals compared to a control group of peers who’d won a single silver or bronze global competition medal in their careers. We wanted to understand what differentiated the super-champions from the nearly made-its. One of the few distinguishing differences was that the super-champions appeared to have had more challenges in early life – divorce of parents, loss of a loved one, rejection or failure at school being typical examples. It’s interesting how many leading athletes are dyslexic – under performance at school may have driven them to find other ways to demonstrate high ability.
Needless to say the question of nature vs. nurture arises when considering this “rage to master” factor. I am of the view that although it derives from life experiences, in most cases it traces to early development: in sport the trait is typically visible in early adolescence, often as disruptive or argumentative or questioning behaviours. Is it a pre-requisite for success? Not universally but in my experience, it is a very common trait in high-achievers. Leaders and coaches of expert performers must therefore learn to both tolerate its impact at times and also nurture the often-fragile personalities that display it – even deep into careers.
The second component alongside the rage to master that you talk about is Flow…
Flow describes a set of sensations that can be experienced when you’re totally immersed in a goal-oriented task and are working close to or at the limit of your skills and abilities to perform that task. I believe it’s a hugely important yet under-acknowledged factor in determining how people get really good at things. The phenomenon is often described as the love of the task, or more precisely the love of the process the task requires.
If you think of your brain as a simple computer what’s happening when you’re in a state of Flow is you’re applying all your conscious processing power to the task. You’re completely absorbed in it, working to the edge of your skillset, and thus unable to attend to other thoughts and distractions. The most common symptoms are losing track of time and being purely in the present – experiences that clearly resonate with the concept of mindfulness but that typically occur during intense purposeful activity. Flow is not just confined to sports people or expert musicians – it can occur in something as apparently mundane as trying to figure out and complete an IKEA flat pack, or as functional as debugging a complex spreadsheet. Kids building with LEGO are almost certainly experiencing Flow and I suspect computer games designers also understand the Flow phenomenon as they seem adept at building products that become all-absorbing and sometimes addictive.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who first proposed the concept of Flow, argues that those who experience it on a regular basis are happier, healthier, more at peace than others – and that it is a key component of wellbeing and quality of life. Perhaps paradoxically, his thinking was shaped by interviewing people in the aftermath of the Second World War who had survived concentration camps and other appallingly challenging conditions with relative good mental health. He concluded that their ability to lose themselves regularly in goal-oriented tasks had helped them endure what caused many others perished.
Mihaly’s Flow Model:
Are there people who never experience Flow?
Csikszentmihalyi suggested that there are psychological traits that may pre-dispose some people to finding it easier; they’re Flow-seekers, they get it. My hunch however is it’s probably possible for most people to experience it if the environment and social conditions are conducive.
It has been argued that most people find Flow in the work environment rather than in their home life, perhaps because the nature of work is typically more goal-oriented. Also, you need blocks of time where you are able to concentrate and are not interrupted which can be harder to get at home.
I believe we should think more about how we develop Flow in the work place, and about how to lead and coach in a manner that makes it more likely that workers experience it. I’m convinced it’s one of the keys to unlocking people’s potential – not least because it’s addictive, you’ll want to experience it again and again. I believe the people who are happiest and most productive in their work are people who experience Flow regularly as a consequence of their work. It’s typically people who love doing what they do, who never think of their hourly rate as the metric of success. They measure the value they accrue from work via the sense of achievement they get.
The next part of your formula is Deliberate Practice…
My thinking here is heavily influenced by the sometimes controversial work of K. Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, one of the leading researchers and writers on human expert performance.
Ericsson’s central thesis is that people get to be expert performers at objectively measurable complex tasks primarily because they spend hundreds and often thousands of hours deliberately practising to improve, not because of some underlying gift or talent. It is vitally important to distinguish here between deliberate practice and simply repeating a task over and over. It is the difference between hitting a ball a thousand times against a wall without any thought or reflection on what is happening, and actively thinking about and experimenting with every strike of the ball with the intention of learning about and ultimately mastering every aspect of the task. The former may lead to little improvement, the latter to a profound increase in skill and ability.
Deliberate Practice is massively enhanced by high quality feedback – you need to know, as objectively as possible, if what you are doing is having the desired outcome – or to put it bluntly if you’re getting better or worse! Some of this you can sense yourself; it can also be embedded in the task, especially with modern technologies which are now able to give us masses of data. But, as is so powerfully demonstrated in sport, there is no substitute for an expert coach or mentor. Someone whose role is explicitly to help you develop and pursue your goals. What defines great coaching, especially at the high-performance level, is brilliant feedback – the right message at the right time, based on high levels of technical knowledge and domain experience.
You can read more about Deliberate Practice here or watch this video on the science behind practicing to improve.
What’s your experience of how this aspect of the development of expertise happens outside sport?
My experiences and insights in business suggest there is rarely sufficient investment in good coaching and high-quality feedback for individuals identified as potential high performers. There’s also often an incredible mismatch between the team in human resource who are evangelists of PDR (personal development review) type processes and the notion of Deliberate Practice. For many managers PDR processes are unrewarding because reviews are rarely about helping the employee become an expert. For one thing they don’t happen frequently enough. And Deliberate Practice with high quality feedback is not just meeting with a business coach and having a moan! How many business coaches are able to follow you around and watch you perform several times a month, or debrief videos of presentations and workshops?
Goal-oriented behaviour is included within Deliberate Practice – how does it fit in?
In sport you have to know what you want to achieve to get really good. Athletes thrive on having task-specific goals coupled with a wider deeper vision about what they want to become, how they want to see themselves. Both are important. It’s the same in business; you need to work back from a long-term vision of success and then set and regularly review the milestone goals that could lead you there.
How can individual leaders make this happen?
You start by asking “what’s the maximum amount of time I can spend doing the things I need to do to improve performance?” This is because, once all the other variables are known, it’s time on task that will determine success. In practice this is nearly always limited by and balanced against the other essentials in life – eating, sleeping, nurturing key relationships, recovery and recreation, etc. However, there is a maxim which can be overlooked when considering the cost of becoming a successful high performer – what are you prepared to give up in order to excel at something?
In high-level sport the reality is you will have to give up more than most people can accept to have the time necessary for the volume of practice required. In the workplace, I’m often surprised by how little time is put aside for true performance development related work. But you can only do so much without it exhausting you, mentally or physically or both. If this becomes chronic the risk is burnout, the end consequence of the performance curve sometimes described as a catastrophe model – on one side there’s an initial burst of rapid improvement but this slows as both incremental performance gain naturally reduces and workload increases. At peak performance the graph flattens out, but this is typically a fragile state and pushing beyond it then triggers a major breakdown in performance, morale and often health.
The last part of the formula is Supportive Environment. While professional support and having the right kit, seem quite straightforward, I’m interested in what you mean within this by a culture of excellence…
My mantra is:
Invest in Endeavour;
Challenge constructively Underperformance;
To develop a culture of excellence you must be willing to identify and celebrate the attainment of mastery by individuals and teams whenever and wherever it occurs – make it clear that’s what we value here, that’s what we love here. Equally important is to get behind and support and invest whenever you see individuals and teams striving to engage with the mission and perform, even if their initial performance level is low.
If the vision, mission, processes and underlying values have been defined and agreed by a team undertaking a venture, then an underperformance judged against these should be faced up to in a constructive manner – what can be done to improve. Even more important than this though is the willingness to reject mediocrity. Some of the best leadership behaviours I’ve seen are where people just won’t let the crap stuff happen – that willingness to not just walk by. It’s not always warm and fluffy but I believe it’s the code you have to live by in order to excel.
Now you’ve explained the formula, one more question, where does it work and where doesn’t it? Can all leaders, teams, organisations develop greater performance expertise if they follow this thinking or are there lost causes?
It works where the mission is clear, the milestones are defined, and where both are regularly reviewed and evaluated with changes communicated to all stakeholders effectively. It works when there is a critical mass of individuals fully signed up to that mission – ideally everyone, but certainly the majority such that the few that are unsure, or unwilling are uncomfortable.
The breakthrough in the fortunes of the British Cycling Team in the early 2000’s occurred when all the above became a reality, but the key was that, critical mass.
Written by Helen Trevaskis and Peter Keen, Director of Sport Advancement, Loughborough University & former Performance Director, UK Sport
Peter is part of SpeakersHub and one of our most sought after speakers on how to achieve personal leadership excellence and build high performing teams. To view his full biography and to book Peter to speak at your own event please click here.
Peter shared his insights as part of Connect – our leadership programme that inspires, develops and connects leaders whose professional paths would not normally cross. With clients from large corporates, social enterprises, charities and the public sector, we bring together a diverse community of 90-100 top leaders to learn alongside and from each other.
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