Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hours’ of practise to become expert has worked its way into the lexicon, for good reason. However, is it always so?

I watched my father practise golf after he took it up in his 30’s, endlessly, while never getting his handicap below 18. He had been a very good tennis player, and all round social athlete, so with the practise should have been a scratch golfer.

Why was he not?

On reflection, two reasons: He  simply did not have whatever natural talent it requires to be a scratch golfer, however many hours he practised, and the second and I think way more important reason, his practise was not real practise as would be required to be a scratch golfer.

He practised alone, without feedback beyond seeing where the ball he just hit went. Even the best golfers in the world have coaches, who give them feedback, look for the tiny places to improve, and polish the technique relentlessly. By contrast, Dad practised alone, because he enjoyed it.

He might have put in the hours, but I suggest the hours were not tough enough.

Thinking back on 40 years of managing, consulting and coaching, there are a number of things that I might have advised dad to do, were he still around.

  • Identify what ‘expert’ really means. Any endeavour has boundaries, inhabited by the few who are just better than anyone else. Roger Federer comes to mind. Learn from what they do, break it down into the tiny items that add up to being a superior performance, and know what that performance looks like.
  • Seek out areas of weakness to fix. Performance is always uneven, some components are better than others. The tendency is to double down on what you do well, which is always my advice on strategy, but improving the poorer bits while polishing the peak bits gives a stronger base, and a more reliable standard of performance. It usually takes an outside view to identify these areas, a coach, which is why Federer has one, as does every athlete at the top of their game. A coach demands maximum effort in practise, and highlights areas for improvement. Dad did not have a coach, just Mum begging him to do stuff around the house instead of hitting a golf ball.
  • Practise to a program. Putting in the hours when you have them spare is different from exercising the discipline necessary to make the choice to practise instead of doing something else, and then to practise with intent. Having intent means there is an objective, clear steps towards the objective, and performance measures to ensure that the practise is in fact improving the performance, rather than embedding those tiny habits that tend to creep in and inhibit performance.

None of this is any different to what happens in the businesses to whom I consult.

Generally they are small to medium sized manufacturing businesses whose bread and butter is in doing a range of things really well, and then being sufficiently confident to chip their way out of the rough when they find themselves in it, indeed being prepared to risk the rough in order to have a shot at that corporate birdie.