4 Tips for Skill Mastery


What skills inspire awe in you? What do others do that cause you to dream and perhaps even act to develop skills of your own? As for myself, some of the skills I admire are music (e.g. singing, piano, guitar, cello, and others), sports (e.g. martial arts, gymnastics, speed skating, and several other Olympic sports), public speaking, and critical thinking and analysis. I have worked to develop a certain level of proficiency with some of these, and have succeeded to a degree, but I do not have mastery. So what does it take to develop true mastery of skills?

What are some of the keys to becoming best-in-class in a given skill set?

I’ve heard it said that to truly master a skill set, you need to invest a minimum of 2000 hours of practice. When I view athlete profiles that are shown during the Olympics, this figure often comes to mind. Those profiles often depict early morning workouts of 3-4 hours. Then some schooling or work (depending on the athlete’s age). This is followed by more hours of workout in the afternoon and evening. The Olympic pursuit is essentially a full time job for several years. This process takes that individual well beyond the 2000-hour figure, but for Olympic and World competition, that’s what it takes.

The same applies to craftsmen of various kinds, too. The world’s greatest artisans and craftsmen study under a master of that skillset for years before being considered a master on their own. Even then, that person sees their daily practice of the craft as a process of continuing to improve their skills—continuing to develop mastery. They would not tell you they have perfected their craft, even after many, many thousands of hours of practice.

It’s rather simplistic, though, to think that all you have to do is “put in the time” to become a master of a skill. Time for practice is important, but it is not enough. What, then, are some of the keys to developing mastery?

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been exploring the research and insights found in How Learning Works, a research-based, but highly practical exploration of how people actually learn. Is this topic relevant to leaders? Is it a strategic issue? Absolutely! Your organization cannot grow, and cannot be prepared for competition and effectiveness in the future, if your people are not learning and growing. (Click here to see a list of other articles in the series presented below.)

One of the keys of success for your organization’s continued competitive impact is people who are learning and growing—people who continue to develop new skills. Below are several insights from How Learning Works on what factors you need to consider to help your people develop new skills.

The Expertise Paradox

Before we learn new skills, we are in a state of unconscious incompetence. That is, according to Ambrose et al. (2010)1, we don’t know what we don’t know. As we begin to create awareness of what we don’t know, we quickly move to a state conscious incompetence—we are now aware of what we don’t know and can begin to develop skills. As skill development builds, we move to conscious competence and we are now aware of the new skills and mindfully apply them as needed. Eventually, those skills will become “automatic” and we don’t need to think about application of them any longer (much like my ability to touch type this article). We have now moved to a level of unconscious competence.

That level of unconscious competence is where expertise in the skill set emerges and continues to grow. However, there is a paradox in that those who have unconscious competence of skills often have great difficulty in helping others who are unconsciously incompetent develop those very same skills. The way that experts organize, access, and apply what they know is very different than what is needed for those who are developing the same skills. (I explored this problem in Knowledge Webs.)

Because of this “expertise paradox,” the highly skilled personnel that you enlist to train others must carefully consider how component sub-skills work to build mastery, the role of practice, and knowledge of the right time and place to apply skills. These considerations will help them, in effect, deconstruct their unconscious competence into a message that novices can work with.

Breaking It Down

As noted above, it is very important to consider the component sub-skills when helping others develop mastery. Experts often struggle with this because their unconscious competence has effectively “packaged” these sub-skills into a superset of skills that are seen as a unified skill. Indeed, this is part of what makes that person an expert. All of the pieces fit together seamlessly.

Here is an example:
The championship quarterback gets set behind his center and in a matter of a few seconds is able to scan the formation of 11 players on the defense, surmise what strategy they are likely to use on this snap, register the position of key defensive players in his mind and weigh that against their performance earlier in this game, consider the play planned for this snap, assess his own key players and how they match up to the situation at hand, evaluate his own strengths and weaknesses thus far in the game, put all of this in the context of the current game status (score, time to play, number of timeouts remaining, time left on the play clock, weather conditions, and more), and then possibly implement an “audible”—a change in the play at the line of scrimmage.

All of this happens almost instantaneously. The quarterback has unconscious competence (mastery if he is a championship quarterback), because all of the component skills fit together in one skillset.

However, to teach others the super-skillset, the component skills must be broken down into smaller chunks. An additional important consideration after these sub-skills are identified is to consider whether the sub-skills should be practiced individually or in the context of the others.

Ambrose et al. (2010)1 point out that this largely depends on the complexity of the super-skillset. For complex tasks such as quarterbacking, conflict management, or contract negotiation, the component skills need to be first practiced alone, and then slowly integrated into the whole as proficiency in sub-skills is developed. For other tasks where the super-skillset is not as complex, “whole-task practice” from the outset may be more effective.

To plan the proper approach for breaking down the super-skillsets, your skill experts should collaborate with one another, as well as with some novices. Together they can explore which sub-skills need individualized attention and which can be taught as a group.

This collaborative process helps overcome the expert paradox and also break down the super-skillsets into chunks that can be learned by novices on their way to expertise.

These issues allude to the next two considerations in developing skill mastery: integration of skills and application of skills. I’ll explore both of those topics next week. Until then, I encourage you to examine the other articles in this series.


Other Articles In This Series

Learn. Grow. Change.
How Does Learning Work?
Assess What You Know
Knowledge Webs
Why Learn?
Why Learn? (Part II)

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo “Oltrarno Artisans” by Context Travel. Available at Flickr.com.

1: Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Marsha C. Lovett, Michele DiPietro, and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Thinking (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010), chapter 4.

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