Experts are made, not born: Strategies for the busy entrepreneur

At the 2nd Conference on Entrepreneurial Cognition at the Ivey Business School in the Canadian fall of 2005, researchers and scholars gathered together and proffered the one integrated question that exists as an entry point for all other research in the field: How do entrepreneurs think?

This question is deceptively simple. It is a beginning point to a rabbit hole of all other questions: Why do some persons but not others become entrepreneurs? Why do some persons but not others recognise opportunities for new products and services that can be profitably exploited? Why are some entrepreneurs so much more successful than others?

Beyond these three basic questions central to the field of entrepreneurship, there are copious inquiries and puzzles surrounding the entrepreneurship phenomena: Why is it that some people see opportunity while others, encountering the same experience and information, do not? Why do some people act and turn their ideas into business opportunities while others are satisfied to say that they have thought of that too? What do entrepreneurs do? How do they do it? 

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The world of successful entrepreneurs seems like an impenetrable fortress shrouded in the glitz and glamour accorded by the corporate world and media alike. Entrepreneurship is often considered as a vehicle for upward social mobility – but an exclusive vehicle only privy, presumably, to the most tenacious and purpose-driven few.

person using MacBook Pro beside brown leather briefcase

Fortunately, at present, advances in socio-cognitive psychology are being applied to this study of how entrepreneurs think and we are able to draw insights that may prove beneficial for the everyday man to corporate businessmen to fellow aspiring entrepreneurs.

As such, I will attempt to answer, in part, to a commonly asked question: Why are some entrepreneurs so much more successful in starting and operating new ventures than others? Assuming ceteris paribus, there is an oft-neglected but very important factor that will determine one’s success across different domains – deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice vs. experience – Knowing what you do vs. Doing what you know

Conventional wisdom might dictate that inherited talents and attitudes genetically determine exceptional performance in one’s domain. However, studies show that while not unimportant, genetics do not play a central role. Some might argue that it is the result of experience, as measured by the sheer amount of time in a given domain, a quality that is much sought after when hiring talents. However, systematic research has not shown a relationship between experience and exceptional performance. Most individuals tend to hit a performance plateau and no further gains in spite of growing experience.

If it’s not genetics or experience, then what exactly propels one to reach exceptional performance? The answer has been encapsulated by basketball superstar, Michael Jordan, “I’m not out there sweating for three hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat.” It is this highly repeated concentrated and carefully focused effort, known as deliberate practice, which holds the key to expert performance.

As such, the old adage of “practice makes perfect” is somewhat true. From a psychological standpoint, it is the active strategy of deliberate practice that differentiates the novice from the expert. Deliberate practice involves the following key features:

  • It is mentally-demanding and requires high-levels of focus and concentration. The person must be fully absorbed in his/her efforts to improve and focus the task at hand for it to be effective.
  • Areas of weakness must be identified and worked on for improvement.
  • It must be repeated and continue for long periods of time. Basic research on expert performance has suggested that benefits it generates cannot usually be attained with less than 10 years or 10,000 hours of continued, vigorous effort.
  • It requires continuous feedback of results from others or the tasks itself. In this regard, setting goals, specific and related to the task, would be important as well.
  • It involves a lot of metacognition – individuals’ knowledge and understanding of their cognition and performance. This involves self-observation and self-reflection as well as performance reflection after practice sessions are completed.

From the list above, it is no wonder that scholars in this field regard the deliberate practice as the opposite of fun. One may also be daunted by the fact that you would have to commit to at least 10 years or 10,000 hours of continuous, vigorous effort to be an expert performer. However, I would qualify that this would only apply if you seek to be an elite performer in a specific domain.

woman in teal t-shirt sitting beside woman in suit jacket

For most of us, it is more important to make gains from continued efforts for the betterment of whatever skills we are keen to work on. Deliberate practice is not hard work or prolonged practice. Rather, it should be regarded as a magnifier or intensifier of initial skills and capabilities.

As opposed to doing what you know, it is advised to know what you do. Not only does it have beneficial effects on basic cognitive processes such as perception, memory and metacognition, this has a spill-over effect in key entrepreneurial tasks that influence new venture performance, such as opportunity recognition and evaluation, identification of specific resources needed to exploit identified opportunities.

But I’m a busy businessman: Deliberate practice for the hustling entrepreneur

The field of deliberate practice is not spared from the tension between theoretical concepts and practical application. A key limitation of deliberate practice does not include on-the-job performance. This means that professional development activities, such as attending conferences or seminars or even training for skills-upgrading, are for the development of domain expertise and does not fulfill the criteria of deliberate practice.  It is highly impractical to expect working professionals to schedule deliberate practice above and beyond their hectic jobs.

Hypothetically, even if these businessmen do commit to deliberate practice, the rate of gains may be too slow to adapt to the changing environments in the corporate setting. There are various pressures, such as employee turnover, change in senior management, a pivot of the business, or extension of a business offering that put a premium on methods to build expertise in the organisation rapidly. For many in the corporate realm, time is money and money means one’s bottom-line.

On this note, Peter Fadde and Gary Klein offered a promising and practical solution for business people who are limited by time constraints but are keen to accelerate improvements in their performance. They qualified that most of the examples in deliberate practice involve motor or perceptual motor-skills whereas most of the skills needed in professional and business jobs involve knowledge work. The notion of deliberate practice should be extended to include learning activities that allows professionals and business people to raise their level of competency and build expertise on-the-job. They call it: deliberate performance.

The crux of deliberate performance is to make routine tasks increasingly more challenging, thereby creating opportunities for reflection and growth. While this may seem commonsensical, the next question to ask is how? What are some structures and methods that one is able to easily apply in their day-to-day? Based on Fadde and Klein’s paper, they believe that deliberate performance exercises should fulfill the following criteria:

  • Be tied to everyday job performance without adding excessive time
  • Not impinge on the performance of the job task at hand
  • Offer varied repetitions with timely feedback
  • Not require expert judgement for feedback

Fadde and Klein proposed that there are four types of deliberate performance exercises that meet these criteria: estimation, experimentation, extrapolation, and explanation. For the purposes of this article, I will summarise the key ideas behind each type. For more details, you can access this paper here

Strategy 1: Estimation

Firstly, estimation of time or resources needed to complete a task or a project is an important skill and estimation exercises helps improve awareness of interrelated elements in a task or work environment. The estimation exercise was drawn from a US Marine workshop on intuitive decision making. In a traditional business setting where estimation is a direct skill, one need only think of company revenue estimates. One of the authors, Klein, himself used to generate highly inaccurate revenue estimates of a company he founded. With repetition and diagnosing the reasons of his inaccuracy, he was able to estimate revenue with a surprisingly high level of accuracy. A good way to practice estimation is during business meetings, which to some, are a dime a dozen. One can estimate the time taken for each agenda item or estimate on a scale of 1-5 the degree the resolution that each item will receive. This will lead to an increased awareness of what types and depths of topics can be reasonably dealt with in a specific amount of time and what circumstances lead to topics being adequately or inadequately resolved. From this, one would build situational awareness and get a keen sense on how people with different interests and agendas interact in a meeting.

Strategy 2: Experimentation

Secondly, experimentation is probably the most important learning process we engage in as it develops reflection-in-action. There are 3 experimentation strategies: exploratory experiments where you probe and play to get a feel of things; move-testing experiments in which a person takes an action in order to produce an intended change; and hypothesis testing which tries out and compares competing hypotheses. Whether the experimentation success of fails based on your expectations, it will inevitably strengthen your mental models and expand your knowledge base. It is no wonder that organisations such as Walmart or Google pilot tests new ideas in a limited market. Deliberate performance experimentation generates surprises and therein, opportunities for reflection-in-action.

Strategy 3: Extrapolation

Thirdly, extrapolation refers to the way people recycle prior incidents, including examples they have heard from others, to extract lessons learned. In moments of failures or almost failures, a person’s “woulda -coulda,-shoulda” ruminations are valuable and reflecting learning experience for the future. Whether real or imagined, the incidents of losing a client or losing out on an important negotiation, serve as rich, if unpleasant, opportunities to reflect on alternative strategies on what could be done better. Another form of extrapolation is with an outside view perspective whereby a team, can look at relevant projects to theirs, and evaluate factors that were determinants in past project’s success or failure in order to vicariously learn and apply insights to their current project.

Strategy 4: Explanation

Fourthly, explanation is routinely pursued by professionals and business people who want to improve their performance and domain expertise. The primary interest of explanation is within the context of deliberate performance in showing how estimation, experimentation, and extrapolation can generate more opportunities for reflective explanation, either internally by individuals or team members. Of course, the caveat is that it requires subjective judgement and the explanation provided may not necessarily be accurate. The challenge here would then be to make sense of the information given.

Application of deliberate performance to improve presentation skills

Estimation Predict the duration or the length of time needed for each portion of the presentation
Predict the audience reactions to various parts of the presentation
Watch a colleague present and predict if they will run out of presentation time or audience attention
Experimentation Give the same presentation with and without slides
Try different examples to see audience reactions
Try inviting questions during the talk or reserving questions until the end
Extrapolation Listen to others talk at a conference and see what strategies used were effective to you as an audience member
Observe the moments when audience members lose interest in a presentation and extrapolate that moment to imagine the worst case scenario in which they walk out
Explanation Seek explanations from experts on presentations as well as typical target audience members on feedback of your presentation as well as presentations that you have observed together 

Experts are always made, not born

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, published in 2006, holds 900 pages worth of contributions from more than 100 leading scientists who have studied expertise and top performance in a wide variety of domains. No matter the domain being investigated, from surgery to fire fighting to acting, the conclusions were the same: experts are always made, not born.

Of course, even with deliberate performance, it is easier said than done. In the ancient guild model, deliberate performance was intended to hasten the transition from journeyman to expert. However, the path to being an expert in one’s field is paved with a lot of hard work, patience, struggles and critical self-assessment. It is no wonder that successful entrepreneurs are few and far between. That said, some may argue that the success of entrepreneurs can be attributed to extraneous variables such as being born with a silver spoon and being privy to a host of useful networks. On this note, I would say that upward comparison would only lead you to an uphill battle to nowhere. While I am not denying that does not have an influence, I am more interested in exploring variables which one is able to control. The central findings of research on expert performance are promising. It means that excellence is not the sole province of those who won the genetic lottery but potentially much available to a larger pool of people.

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As mentioned earlier, it is not so much important for an entrepreneur to achieve elite levels of performance in only specific skill than it is to aspire and attain levels of performance far above the typical in a host of skills that are critical to the stage of your career. Be it improving your pitching to investors and venture capital firms or being an engaging speaker at a conference and in front of the media to being an effective leader of your organisation, there are strategies available that allows you to succeed just as long as you are willing to work hard in specific and carefully directed ways.

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References

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review100(3), 363.

Mitchell, R. K., Busenitz, L. W., Bird, B., Marie Gaglio, C., McMullen, J. S., Morse, E. A., & Smith, J. B. (2007). The central question in entrepreneurial cognition research 2007. Entrepreneurship theory and practice31(1), 1-27.

Baron, R. A., & Henry, R. A. (2010). How entrepreneurs acquire the capacity to excel: Insights from research on expert performance. Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal4(1), 49-65.

Fadde, P. J., & Klein, G. A. (2010). Deliberate performance: Accelerating expertise in natural settings. Performance Improvement49(9), 5-14.

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