Innovation expertise

Building expertise in chess via Deliberate Practice. Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

How can we think about developing skills which are primarily mental skills?

I think it is common in certain educational settings (eg courses of any sort) to over emphasise the memorisation of concepts rather than the building of skills, whether it’s learning about Deep Learning or learning about Professional Services firms. Mathematics courses, to contrast, will focus on problem solving, though there often seems no structure behind building those skills. You kind of figure out various tricks, various equivalencies that cancel out or that can be ignored. In my experience learning mathematics subjects at university, you just learned by completing the assignment questions.

In management education there are famous models and frameworks that go part the way to try and inculcate skills – frameworks like Porters 5 Forces, SWOT and so on. The balance in traditional education like universities is in my experience still strongly in favour of memorising concepts not building skills. I do think more and more educational courses are moving back to a better balance, it’s a trend, partly because anyone can google concepts and parrot them out, so there is no money in that anymore.

What does this have to do with innovation?  Before I get into that, I guess I better define what I mean by concepts vs skills, and why I think it’s important.

Concepts vs Skills 

If you were to ask an Innovation Manager – “Hey here is a short course on Christensen’s disruption theories” – she might say “I know all about disruption, I don’t need the course”. If you were to say to a black belt in BJJ – “Hey want to come to a seminar on guard retention” – she would say “Great, where do I sign up?”.

Whats the difference here? One big thing about BJJ is that everyone knows that concepts have to be drilled and then tested under pressure. Knowing how to make guard retention work in reality is very different from being able to describe what it is and how to do it. So the difference is that the BJJ black belt knows that they need to embed theory into practice, whereas it’s common (in my experience) for peeps in management to assume that knowledge of theory, and being able use the concepts fluently are the same thing. To be fair under many circumstances when people do the same thing over and over, for example imagine making a prototype every few weeks, that person definitely has some skills, but ideally it would be good for them to practice other things which they only know academically. One place where concepts are often pressure tested is in a startup, or new business. I would argue however that there is so much panic about getting something to market that there is not a lot of time to develop well rounded skills.

Practice & why do we care

Anders Ericsson is the primary source of the term “Deliberate Practice”. His research showed that the highest achievers in tennis, music, chess etc, only achieved their world rankings through Deliberate Practice, which is basically about highly targeted practice, which is error focused, has prompt feedback, and is in a domain that has a best practice*. One of his findings was that it was Deliberate Practice that was often the major causal factor for being a world champion, not necessarily some inbuilt genius.

Its not just physical skills (which have all have a cognitive competent of course) but mental skills which can be improved massively, but to me it often seems rather nebulous as to what mental skills are and how you would practice them.

So this is my way of explaining it. Actively retrieving and processing concepts, making connections between ideas, rearranging and rearchitecting those concepts or ideas, and integrating new elements into larger more abstract concepts, which can be further rearranged and chunked. All of this is what I think of as building mental skills.

How might you do this? I’m glad you asked. An example might be if you were to use the SWOT framework focusing on a particular organisation or team, because you are actively thinking through things and not just retrieving concepts, you probably would be building some skills (using that framework), and the more you did that systematically in a “Deliberate Practice” sort of way, the better your (SWOT) skills would be.

The upshot is that in order to get better we need to practice our skills, and pressure test the use of those skills in a variety of ways, and get some sort of feedback to improve.

This is the primary reason why I make my workshops experiential, because I am trying to build skills, not help people remember concepts that they probably already know or can google.

Show me the Innovation

How do we apply Deliberate Practice to innovation?

In martial arts there is a kind of performance called kata which is where you practice various moves. This has been translated to programming, where programmers are encouraged to perform katas to increase their skills. In terms of getting close to Deep Practice my feeling is that the programming katas come a lot closer than the martial art katas. The traditional martial art katas often bare no resemblance to techniques that actually work, they are often not pressure tested. The programming katas are at least practicing real world skills.

How might we “practice” innovation?

When you are trying to innovate you might be doing lots of things, but a lot of the time you are using metal effort, so how does this become more concrete, how can we align it with Deliberate Practice? Sometimes it may be a new strategy you are creating, or a new prototype which you can measure and get feedback from. Sometimes however the innovation effort might be creating new concepts, creating new opportunities, developing new ideas. These are harder to measure and so harder to learn from.  One way is to attend an experiential innovation program 😜, but if you can’t get access to those what are the things you could do to practice innovation?

Let me know if you have some ideas. I’ll post some of my ideas at some point.

If you are interested in discussing this further, or you are interested in my innovation programs, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

*If there is no best practice and no experts to learn and get feedback from, Ericsson calls it Purposeful Practice


K. Anders E. , Robert P. (2017) Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom

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