Practicing with a Purpose

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Two years ago I decided to take up the game of golf. After a few lessons, I bravely invited my husband, a high school golf coach, to watch me practice on the driving range. Five minutes in, he asked me a question that has made me better both in golf and in business. His question was, “What are you practicing?”

At first, I just looked at him curiously and said, “Golf?” He replied, “No, what are you practicing? Our team always practices with a purpose, focusing on something very specific they want to improve. What are you practicing?” I stopped and honestly, I had to think about my answer. What was my purpose, and what was I practicing?

I looked down at my club, looked out on the horizon at the distance targets, and said, “I am practicing my alignment. I want to have a shot that is in line with a target, more consistently.” He said, “Okay – work on alignment, only alignment. Don’t worry about distance or which club you are using at this point. Start with one, then try a couple more, but focus on alignment.” His words and this shift in focus unlocked a whole new thought process and approach for me. I improved my golf performance significantly by “practicing with a purpose”, and now we apply this principle in other performance areas for ourselves and others.

In business, this concept of practicing with a purpose is often called “deliberate practice”. The HBR article “The Making of an Expert” explains this concept: “Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills.” It takes forethought, focus, and sustained effort, and should be aimed at the desired performance outcome.

In our work with professionals, we have seen deliberate practice significantly impact their performance. We have witnessed improvements in business development, strengths-based development, employee engagement, and management skills development when individual performers strategically invest in practicing with a purpose. Let’s consider an example in business development.

Our training in strategic selling includes sales process, skills, and meeting execution. Our approach includes not only training but also coaching and practice for actual business development situations. If a participant wants to practice meeting execution, their practice for business development isn’t simply increasing their number of business development interactions or meetings and then reporting back. That would qualify as practice, yes, but not deliberate practice.

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Deliberate practice for enhancing business development meeting execution would include:

  1. Identifying the purpose for each interaction

  2. Planning the meetings in advance (e.g., players, broad questions, closes, etc.)

  3. Practicing responses to potential objections or tough questions

  4. Executing meetings

  5. Debriefing each experience to identify key learning opportunities  

In a recent team session, a participant shared that he has been focusing more intently on the discipline around the meeting rather than just holding meetings. As a result, he has had more productive conversations, uncovered previously unknown needs, built stronger relationships, and has had better meeting results overall.  

The goal of practicing with a purpose is to build both competence and confidence in the knowledge, skill, or performance area of focus. Research shows that while investing time in practice and repetition in practice is essential, it’s not the quantity, but rather the quality of practice that yields the most improvement. Effective aim and discipline toward the desired outcome will provide the most lift. In other words, deliberate practice makes the most significant difference.

In your leadership and management, what are you practicing? What can you do to improve your existing knowledge and skills or extend the reach and range of your abilities? Regardless of what you’re practicing, think about how you can do it with a purpose. Deliberate practice might be the key to unlocking that next level of expertise or performance to propel you forward to achieve your goals.