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.1.    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.2.    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, 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.3.    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, Wold 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 straight-forward rules are the
fundamental means for professionals to make certain they become one of the
successful and sought-after.Flickr photo: by dampoint
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