With very few exceptions, raising your game to an exceptional level of performance takes practice. It’s a well-worn bromide, as old as the punchline of the joke that goes–
“How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”
Great performance artists practice. They rehearse weeks for a performance that will be timed in minutes.
There’s no longer an off-season for professional athletes. Year-round practice is part of the job.
Surgeons practice on cadavers and other specimens before operating on living humans.
We can cite lots of examples of practice paying off in other fields, yet we see that, frequently, organizational storytellers slough off the practice of practicing. They (and their managers) can be so focused on performance that all they do is perform.
Imagine dancers only dancing in front of an audience. Or athletes who only want to play competitive games. This can result in what we’d call good ‘street skills’ — engaging solo dancers or flashy playground players — but the fundamentals required to build a repertory of dancers or a team of players are missing, because fundamentals come to a performer in practice, where the elements of the game can be isolated, repeated, perfected, and built into a coherent performance involving multiple players in multiple contexts.
The lack of practice when it comes to organizational storytelling isn’t necessarily related to a lack of resources. Training Magazine reported that U.S. companies spent $70.6 billion on training products and services in 2015. Our hunch is that the bulk of that money is spent on performance. Learning how to use an app. Following a proscribed methodology. Implementing new systems. Our hunch is that the bulk of the training goes toward performance, and not the fundamentals needed to achieve those outcomes.
Why is practice important for storytellers, and how is it different from performance?
Practice offers space for exploration. In practice, only one path out of many has to pay off. This isn’t true in performance, where every every path or storyline has to pay off.
Practice is a place where mistakes can be made. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not growing, because mistakes are essential for learning, and learning is the essence of growth. This is different from performance, where even one mistake can be disastrous.
Practice is where our uniqueness as individuals informs the group. It is the space where ‘who I am’ evolves into ‘who we are, together.’ And–it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a dance company or a software company– ‘who we are, together’ is the essence of the brand’s performance.
Practice is where we are inefficient. As the author, Kevin Kelly, says in a TED Talk, “Humans are experts at inefficiency. All art, discovery, innovation, creation, are inherently inefficient. Efficiency is for robots, not us.” Increasingly, where business is concerned, performance will be the domain of robots, and practice will be where humans excel.
Practice is where we can objectively critique our performance before our audience does. It’s where we spot the weaknesses in our game that can be rectified before we take the stage. Why invite outside criticism before we have critiqued ourselves?
So how, in a hyper-competitive business environment, with such heavy emphasis on performance, can organizations find the time to practice–with all the mistakes, surprises and inefficiencies that come with it?
The short-term answer is that, with rare exceptions, they cannot. Because mistakes, surprises and inefficiencies disrupt operations, most organizations are not set up to sacrifice short term gains in the name of a longer term vision.
The longer-term answer is that they have to. Because if they don’t do it, a start-up will. A start-up is all exploration, mistakes, surprises and inefficiencies in service of performance. Start-ups, of necessity, prioritize practice. Their learning curves are extreme relative to established companies, because it’s their competitive advantage.
How can established companies deal with this conundrum? They can begin by recognizing the differences between practice and performance, and honoring both. It is a matter of context. Here are a few of the ways practice can become part of the organizational storyteller’s routine:
Listen before speaking. Listen to your customers before telling your story. And before listening to your customers, practice listening to one another.
Co-create stories. Replace competitions for the dominant narrative with collaborations.
Take improv classes. Improv theater offers a host of techniques for creating stories together. Most communities have at least one improv theater offering classes for non-entertainers. One improv class can change your entire world view.
Honor Agile development. Agile developers are all about breaking code and ‘making mistakes’ until a product is ready for market. As with improv, Agile has lots of techniques for collaboration, from working in pairs to ‘mob programming,’ that translate well into other types of communication processes.
It’s no joke. Almost any question that begins, “How do I…?” can be answered with the word “Practice.”