Sunday 12 May 2013

How do you improve?

How do you improve? (How to improve your skills as a trainer)(How to make the most of your participants practice time)

How do you hone your skills?
Yesterday, I was playing Magic: The Gathering with my son. Those of you who are familiar with the game can skip to the next paragraph. For those of you who aren’t, Magic is the game that spawned the collectible card game genre. To play, each player assembles their own deck of cards from among the thousands of possible cards. Since the cards are shuffled before play, there’s a strong element of chance to the game. That being said, players can improve their odds through good deck building (such as using better cards or cards that work well together) and skillful play (making the best of the cards they’re dealt).
As I was saying, my son and I were playing Magic. Typically, players will assemble their own decks, carefully selecting the cards they’ll include for maximum effect. We were using ready-made decks he’d bought from the local hobby shop. We’d decided not to look at the contents of the decks beforehand, preferring to be surprised. Since we weren’t familiar with the decks (or the cards in them), we didn’t know how to make the best use of the cards we were being dealt.
After I won most of the first rounds while we struggled to get used to our decks, my son wondered aloud whether his deck was worse than mine or whether he was playing it poorly. I asked him if he wanted to trade decks. He declined, saying that it’d be even more demoralising if I continued to win after the switch. He figured he just needed to practice more.
That got me thinking. Sometimes, practice isn’t the best way to improve your game. In fact, there are even times where I’d say practicing is the worst thing you could do.
Improving through practice (“practice makes perfect”)
Practice only makes perfect if the practice is done right. Otherwise, you’re just reinforcing bad habits. If you have the skills/technique, practice will do it. Repeating the desired performance will cement the skill in muscle memory or your memory, until it becomes second nature. The key point here is that practice is most effective / best when you already know what to do and how to do it.
Practice doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practice does.
Improving through innovation/variation (“improvise, adapt, overcome”)
They say insanity is doing the same thing you’ve always done and expecting different results.
What you’re doing might be working, but who’s to say that another approach won’t work even better? A cheeseburger is just fine, but with a slight change it becomes a bacon cheeseburger or a Swiss mushroom melt – either of which is a great improvement. Of course, bacon improves pretty much everything!
An example from of this my professional life involves one of the ways that I’d move about the room while facilitating a session. One day I had a flash of insight: I’d move to the back of the room when I wanted to remove myself from the learners’ focus. I later took this a step further by seating myself at a vacant spot at the back of the room when I wanted to encourage the learners to talk amongst themselves.
Improving through observation (“watch and learn”)
Sometimes you just need to see things done right to get it. This is particularly true in situations where the right way isn’t the obvious way. For example, you know that puzzle
You never know when or where you’ll come across a nugget of genius. This one came from Adam Ferrara, a stand-up comic performing at Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy festival. At one point, during his bit, he sat down on his stool to address the audience “confidentially” (think “just between you and me”). I appropriated this in my training sessions as a way to cue the fact that I wanted to address the learners informally –something I found very handy for encouraging discussion.
Improving through reflection ("sit there and think about what you've done")
This is where you sit back and think about your performance. What went well, what didn’t? What will you do the same next time and what will you change up?
It’s been my experience that this only works if it’s internally motivated, though. I’ve attended a number of courses or workshops where the session leader has invited people to reflect on what they’ve learned or how they’re going to apply the learning back on the job. For me, that often ended up being lost time – I wasn’t ready for that sort of thinking. Then again, maybe that’s just me. I’m not really big on introspection.
This sort of introspection only works for me after I’ve had a chance to apply some skills. I might be thinking to myself “Hey, self. That didn’t go quite as we’d expected. Why do you suppose that is?” or perhaps “Wow, self, that was amazing! What did we do to make it rock like that?”
As for thinking about how I’m going to apply something I’ve learned to my job, that’s something that I do as I’m learning it rather than at some arbitrarily assigned point in time afterwards.
Improving through evaluation/feedback (“see yourself as others see you”)
This one works in tandem with practice and it comes in two forms. Whichever route you go, you do something then you get someone else to give you feedback. I distinguish between the two forms based on who’s giving the feedback. On the one hand, you could solicit feedback from an expert (such as a colleague, mentor or supervisor), alternatively, you could get it from lay people (such as your clients, customers or audience). There’s absolutely no reason you can’t do both.
The most important part is to get the right people giving you feedback. There are two key sources I’d look to for feedback: your clients and experts.
Customer feedback: I saw a lot of this during my time on my company’s Training & Organizational Development team. For example, after each training session we’d get the participants to evaluate the session. If I were looking to improve my facilitation skills, I could look at the responses to the questions on the evaluation related to facilitation skills (such as “The facilitator was knew the subject matter well” or “I felt safe to express myself”).
Expert feedback: In addition to customer feedback, you may want to consider getting feedback from experts. In many cases, these experts will be your peers or your manager, but you’ll know better than I who those they are.
The great thing is that each type of feedback will likely have a different viewpoint. For example, whereas evaluation feedback from training participants could tell me what kind of an impression I was making and how much they enjoyed my training, feedback from my peers could tell me whether I was adhering to best practices and give me specific areas on which to focus for improvement.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, there must be 50 ways to leave your lover and there are (at least) five different ways to go about improving your skills.

Have I missed any? Sound off in the comments.

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