The fine line between productive habits and stalling points

 I came across recently Morten Hansen in Coaching for Leaders episode 337 where Morten discussed his recent book Great at work.

Morten’s five year study shows that the most successful people who excel at their work do not work more but less. They are more focused when they work and they also are agile learners: they ask for immediate feedback and learn from that; they change their routines and constantly seek to improve what they do.

Many of us have heard about Malcolm Cladwell’s 10 000 hours concept: you need to fine-tune a habit or routine by keeping at least 10 000 hours at it if we want to excel. This is true for talent development for sure: we do need to practice in order to improve and become better in a task or a skill.

Yet, Morten’s study actually shows that there is a fine line between a productive habit and a stalling point. Once we form a habit that becomes part of our routine, it can become a “stalling point”: we settle into using this habit or routine and lower ambition in that area of our life because we are already so good at it. In other words, habits are an excellent way to create comfort and kill innovation.

It’s common wisdom that great leaders are great learners. This has to do with the kind of humility that such people embody: they recognise that despite all of their achievements they are still learning. They also recognise the need for what Morten calls “the learning loop” where they continuously seek to learn and ask for feedback. Such an attitude gives them real time data how they are doing and progressing.

Interestingly Morten Hansen debunks annual performance reviews. It makes no sense to review performance annually because there is no feedback loop or opportunity to learn. Finding a more agile way to measure impact would be beneficial but in my mind this would also require clearer setting of goals, and creating personal tracking metrics that would start generating data to see how a particular goals is being progressed.

Tracking learning and soft skills

As a demonstration of how one can constitute an immediate learning loop and start tracking soft skills, Morten tells about one director at a hospital in the US who decided she needed to be able to track how well she was leading meetings and asking questions. She began to track each meeting and noted down the number of ideas generated and the number of ideas implemented. She sought to improve her way of asking questions and generating debate and innovative ideas.

During the next 12-months, she wrote down after each meeting how many innovative ideas her team came up with and then also tracked how many of these were actually implement. After 12-months of tracking, she could clearly see massive improvements in herself and in her team, and also in the overall improvements in patient care and staff satisfaction.

Point is: soft skills are trackable, even if it is harder to do so.

I have thought about this for a long time in a university context. Most of our metrics focus on the number of publications and the ranking of the journal (impact factor) although many universities are starting to broaden the definition of “research impact”.

But there are so many other ways that academics actually add value other than writing purely scientific peer-reviewed articles. We write different commentaries to news outlets, blogs, we give interviews, engage with community groups and governments, we host podcasts, make infographics, give keynotes and speeches at various events, find new research gaps and needs from talking to wide variety of people, lecture and build the next generation of researchers. Many of these are soft skills that are not as easily tracked as statistical information.

In my field of climate adaptation, many argue that since adaptation is a vague and often such an all-encompassing concept (everything is adaptation) that we cannot really measure how well we are doing it. But perhaps we are looking into wrong metrics to show actual progress?

Perhaps what we need to do is to start asking different kinds of questions as to what counts as adaptation, whether it’s the number of people who agree that they have benefited from an adaptation project, the times they have been able to make an informed decision on how to protect their assets from extreme weather event, a clear decision they have made based on climate adaptation information. In the end, it all comes down to having a clear goal and clear steps how to get there.

Start with clarity

The importance of knowing what your goals are, what the process is how you are supposed to achieve them, what you should and can make decisions on; all of this has to do with clarity.

Ann Latham writes in Forbes that we really need to understand four kinds of clarity: strategy, productivity, process and confidence.

Latham argues that

“When people know precisely what they need to accomplish, how, when, and with whom, they can ‘get in the zone’ and make great strides”

This also applies to such issues as confidence. If you know what your decision space is (what you can make decisions on) at work, such clarity will enable you to confidently drive your work and tasks forward. Organisations and individuals need to invest in such clarity and transparency so that everyone is super clear what they aim to achieve, why and how. This also relates to learning: we have to take a focused approach on what we want to learn and where we can improve our skills.

Find your learning points

Perhaps what we really need are “learning points” instead of stalling points: we need to recognise where we have fallen into a routine and where we actually can direct our learning to improve our skills in that category or sector.

For some of us, this sounds like another additional thing we need to schedule into our lives. Yet, Morten says the best way to learn is active learning on the job. This means make a commitment prior you go into a meeting e.g. “this week I want to learn to ask better questions/learn how to ask for feedback/learn to negotiate”. Then use your next meeting to try to learn that, and try to get immediate feedback on how you did.

Learning points can be implemented on daily basis as Morten notes: try out your strategy or idea on your peers first and get feedback. Then use that feedback to pitch the idea or strategy to where you intend it to go, whether it is top management or the top journal in your field.

What in your own life could you measure that you currently think you are doing pretty well? Can you recognise any routines that have accumulated over the years and that you feel very comfortable with? Where have you stalled and stopped to grow because you feel you have mastered something? Where is your learning point?

And when it comes to climate adaptation, do we even have learning points yet?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s