I have a theory: much of the value you bring to your work comes from elsewhere. It could be from a previous job or maybe a hobby. Personally, I learned so much about myself and how to build teams from my time in bands growing up. In this series, I will explore some lessons I learned as a professional musician and how I apply them to large transformations.
I picked up a guitar for the first time when I was about ten years old. A friend down the road had an old classical guitar that I borrowed, and I spent hours learning how to play songs by ear. This was long before YouTube and the internet was certainly not mainstream.
My initial progress was quite quick, but after a few weeks, I started to plateau. My parents saw enough to warrant buying me a cheap electric Stratocaster that looked like the one that Eric Clapton played, and the new sound took me to a new level, but then the dreaded plateau started to develop. I started to have lessons and –although I didn’t know it at the time – my teacher introduced me to Deliberate Practice.
I’m sure you’ve heard Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that 10,000 hours, or ten years, is the magic number for greatness. The debate about nature vs nurture has been going on for centuries –I’ll delve into that another day. Deliberate practice suggests that it is not just the number of hours, but how you spend that time that makes the most difference to your ability to improve at just about anything.
The steps to deliberate practice are as follows: to identify an area of weakness; break down what you want to accomplish; set a challenging goal for yourself; get fast feedback; repeat.
The process is the same whether you’re learning a simple piece as a beginner or a professional musician learning to play a solo by Jimi Hendrix. The time that it takes will vary based on where you are in your musical journey. You start by taking the first few bars and slowing them down, get the first few bars under your fingers, and then gradually speed it up to the right tempo. Then simply repeat the same process with the next bit and then the next. Eventually, you will find that you can play just about anything.
The key is to be intentional about your mindset as you practice. When playing the guitar, I’m not just thinking about the notes but also the tone and how well I’m playing them. The key is to record yourself regularly and listen with a critical ear to look for opportunities to improve.
I started playing in bands in my late teens and went to music college. There, I met the drummer in my band, who took the process of deliberate practice to another level. We knew just how good we needed to be to be successful: the landscape was extremely competitive, and we simply wouldn’t get good gigs unless we were at the top of our game.
As our musical aspirations grew, we devoted hours to every aspect of our playing. We wouldn’t have gotten very far if we just showed up to practice and mindlessly played our songs. Instead, we would practice everything to a metronome, ensuring that we weren’t just playing in time but that the grooves were effortless. We recorded ourselves and played the recordings to our friends and family for feedback, no matter the quality. Over time, the hard work paid off, and we developed a following and got to play some great gigs!
How does this relate to working with teams?
When I work with new teams, I often find they are keen to ‘do Agile’ or deliver with Agile ways of working. Many teams start to have stand-ups, demos, and retrospectives, but the mindset and discipline to look for improvements are often lacking. Sometimes, like my new electric guitar, they get a new tool, and the transparency helps them to improve. Over time, they plateau as they lose their discipline; the tickets or stories aren’t updated.
Using the theory of Deliberate practice, we can be encouraged to make significant progress regardless of where we are in our agile journey. The mindset we need to embrace is similar to learning to play an instrument. We need a clear vision of where we’re going and what we want to achieve; we strive for greatness and set goals that will put us just outside our comfort zone. As we progress, we need to measure our performance and be curious, looking for opportunities to improve at every turn.
In SAFe – the leading framework for agile development – the fourth pillar of the House of Lean is Relentless Improvement. We mustn’t be complacent and be happy with the status quo, but rather be intentional about what we can to improve in anything and everything we do. There is always something that we can do to expand our knowledge and capabilities as a team.
We need the same mindset and approach to learning our Jimi Hendrix solo, but if we only ever learn one song, we become nothing but a party trick and will never achieve greatness.
Imagine, if you will, a team applying deliberate practice to their work. We want to create a culture within the team where they are disciplined to develop muscle memory so that they are nor just operating on a cadence but are in a groove.
When I reflect on my days playing bands, I realise how important it is to surround yourself with people who challenge you and help you become the best version of yourself. Having a common vision of what you want to achieve and breaking it down into concrete next steps is important. It is easy to get overwhelmed if you try to boil the ocean and conquer the world all at once!
Whether you’re working in a team or a band, it is crucial to support each other and reflect on how things are going. We are imperfect humans with more opportunities to improve than many of us care to accept. So often, when people offend or let us down, it is because they’re dealing with something. So start with a cup of tea and ask them how they’re doing.
What experience can you take from your interests to apply to your world? How do you think you can use these principles to bring your unique take to whatever you do?
It is not rocket science; I learned it in a band.