On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Challenging, realistic, varied practice makes perfect.

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

In an attempt to become better, basketball players often stand at the free throw line during practice and take a series of shots, one after another. Free throwA study of men's college basketball players showed that under those conditions, they make an average of 69.8% of their first two free throws and 76.6% of their subsequent free throws.

But during games they typically shoot two free throws at a time, not twenty in a row. Can you guess what their average free throw percentage is during games? And what does that tell us about training teams?

The answer, from a study published in the Journal of Sport Behavior, is 69.2%, which mirrors the players' performance in their first two practice free throws. Interesting, right? I'd suggest that if you want your team to perform better during games, that you create practice conditions similar to games. How about shooting only two free throws at a time – and let's pipe in a little crowd noise?

How we practice matters. Recently, we were asked to review the training practices at a large company that operates all across the globe. We found that their practice sessions were often fairly simple and repetitive. The scenarios and conditions they practiced offered limited challenge, little variety or surprises, and insufficient realism. As a result, teams were learning how to handle the basics through rote learning, but they were less ready to handle uncertainties and less equipped to adapt to the unexpected events that the real world will throw at them.

Let's see what the research can tell us about how to practice and the implications of that for building expertise and readiness in our teams.

The Science of Practice. The Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson is well-known for his work on expertise. He has shown that simply having a lot of experience doing something does not always produce great expertise. He argues, quite compellingly, that engaging in deliberate, effortful practice aimed specifically at improving performance is what builds great expertise. For example, in a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, researchers Sabine Sonnentag and Barbara Kleine studied insurance agents and found that those who engaged in more hours of deliberate practice subsequently performed their jobs more effectively.

Richard Schmidt and Robert Bjork, professors at UCLA, were among the first to postulate that designing training to optimize trainees' test scores at the end of training is unlikely to prepare them to perform well in the real world. For instance, training that is structured to ensure that trainees do not make mistakes can yield a nice high test score at the end of training, but is unlikely to prepare trainees for on-the-job challenges that do not always progress in a logical manner or under ideal conditions. Challenge, complexity, realism, and variety are the key to preparing for complex jobs and assignments.

Researchers such as Gorman, Cooke, and Amazeen at Arizona State have shown that training that includes perturbations builds expertise. By definition, a perturbation is something that creates "disquiet" or "disorder." These bumps in the road create challenges and often lead to mistakes. I'd suggest that making mistakes during team training and learning from those mistakes -- as a team -- helps builds adaptability and resilience in teams – two critical competencies.

Implications for Training Teams. So what does all this mean for preparing your work teams? Based on the research and our experience training teams, I'd suggest the following:

  • Find time for intentional practice. Where are the opportunities to practice? If they don't currently exist, how could you create practice opportunities? Remember, simply "experiencing" a job does not ensure that expertise is being built. Simply working together as a team does not necessarily build teamwork skills or collaboration. Allocate time where the primary goal is to become better at something.
  • Build sufficient realism and complexity into your training. When you design training exercises, identify the types of challenges that the team might face. Think of the challenges as "trigger events" that should require the team to problem solve, coordinate, adjust, and/or adapt. Don't default to practicing just the most basic situation or allow the team to "go through the motions" during training. A trigger can sometimes be as simple as pretending that the internet connection has been lost during a practice sales presentation or at the last minute announcing that they only have 15 minutes to give that 45 minute sales pitch.
  • Providing "psychological fidelity" during training is often more important than recreating perfect physical reality. In other words, creating a practice environment where people will experience similar feelings and cognitive demands that they experience on the job does not mean that the training environment must be physically identical to the work environment. For example, some great aviation training has been done in settings that didn't exactly mirror the cockpit.
  • Practice as a team. Individual training is important, but if the goal is to build teamwork, coordination and team readiness, at times it is important to practice together as a team.

What if you can't physically practice challenging situations as a team? Then be creative.

  • If you can't practice physically, practice cognitively. Create challenging scenarios and ask the team members to think aloud about what they would do. Then provide additional information about the situation and talk about what they would do next. Reflect upon and discuss the challenges presented in the scenario, and at the end, capture lessons learned for how they will work together on the job. We've had good success using this type of cognitive "scenario-based training."
  • If you can't implement deliberate, varied, practice as a team, then at least do so individually. You probably have not heard of Jackie Bradley. Yet. He's a minor league baseball player for the Boston Red Sox. I predict you will hear of him, because he will be an excellent major league player someday [Disclosure – I am a Red Sox fan, so I can't really approach this as an impartial scientist!]. Here's a quote from Mr. Bradley that describes what he does when shagging fly balls in practice.

    "Sometimes...I try to put myself in a difficult situation to see if I can re-enact a play," said Bradley. "You never know -- the spin, the wind, if you slip. I actually slow down in order to make a play more difficult sometimes.... Some days might be different -- the lighting, weather. I'm trying to get a feel for the field and how everything is playing that particular day."

His approach encapsulates a few of the key principles. While most ballplayers view shagging flies as a boring, repetitive experience, he intentionally builds in complexity and perturbations that force him to learn how to adjust and adapt. Hopefully the Red Sox (and of course, your organization) can deploy similar principles as a team!