As a manager at PTC, I need to write a performance appraisal for each of my direct reports. I will also receive a performance appraisal from my manager to help me identify strengths and weaknesses and set goals for the coming year. While preparing my own self-evaluation, I remembered reading about the concept of “deliberate practice”. I’d already been trying to apply my understanding of the idea, but decided to listen to an original source before including more about it in my self appraisal.Mary Poppendieck’s Agile 2009 deliberate practice talk describes deliberate practice as practice which is intentionally focused on improving performance. I want to improve my performance. Mary highlights four key components that are required for a person to be using deliberate practice:

  • Mentor – a high skills expert to review, critique, and highlight flaws
  • Challenge – tasks that require greater skill than we currently possess
  • Feedback – review and analysis of results used to improve future attempts
  • Dedication – hard work, time and energy applied diligently

I don’t have a mentor for the things I’m trying to improve! At least, I haven’t identified someone as my “coach” and had them agree to review, critique, and highlight flaws in my performance. Flaw number 1 (and the most glaring flaw) in my recent improvement attempts.Many of my tasks and assignments are the same assignments I’ve had before, coordinating, planning, discussing, and interacting with others. However, I always find those tasks challenging because I don’t feel like a naturally social person. Negotiating, discussing, persuading, and debating do not come naturally to me. There is room to improve in the “challenge” area, although I don’t see it as making as much an improvement as the absence of a coach in my improvement efforts.Most of my activities have feedback built into the activity in one form or another. Meetings which start on time, stay on task, complete their objectives, and end on time leave me feeling refreshed, invigorated, and useful. Meetings which start late, wander aimlessly, don’t have objectives, or extend beyond their scheduled end leave me frustrated and edgy. That’s a form of feedback. However, there are other feedback forms (like team retrospectives) which I’ve not been using faithfully lately, and need to start using again.Dedication may actually need some “negative attention”, since lately I’ve been spending too many hours at work and not enough hours with my wife and children. Mary’s talk notes that expert performers in other fields (like music) have discovered that they cannot apply more than 3 hours of deliberate practice at a time because it is too tiring. They stop, change tasks, take naps, or otherwise refresh themselves rather than continuing, and risking developing bad habits by practicing poorly.With the identified gaps in my efforts to improve, now it is time to choose a mentor and start hearing the performance critiques, then acting on them. Finding a mentor seems like a difficult task for a manager. I want a mentor that is

  • Regularly and naturally exposed to my performances, without requiring that I present them a summary of what I did. Swimming coaches do not ask the swimmer to describe the most recent swim, they watch the swimmer and then tell the swimmer directly and openly what could have been improved in that swim. My mentor needs to be someone who “watches my performances” on a regular basis as part of their normal work
  • Able to spend time and energy critiquing my performances with focus on improving them
  • Credible as an expert. My request for coaching is an act of trust and that extension of trust requires that I believe in the skills of the person providing the coaching. I may disagree with their perspectives, challenge their ideas, and still want their coaching
  • Interested in my success. Without interest in my success, I doubt the coach can be trusted to provide excellent feedback

I’m sure there are other things I need in a mentor as well, but that list already worries me. Those who are regularly involved in my work tend to be my direct reports, my peers, and my manager. My direct reports aren’t very interested in coaching their manager (other than possibly to smile with him about his many failings). My manager is already a mentor by being my manager. My peers and I frequently disagree on methods and techniques and so I’m not sure peers are the best source of mentors either.All this musing might also be less useful if instead of a mentor, I need to become a “buccaneer scholar” as suggested by James Bach. James suggests that I should take responsibility for my own education and for my own learning. That may make seeking a single perfect mentor a waste of effort, rather I could accept that there are mentors all around me and those mentors can provide useful information at times, and information to be ignored at other times.Another alternative is to consider Bob Sutton’s questioning of the value of annual performance appraisals. So many ideas to consider, so many things to learn (the act of writing this has already taken me on a different path than I expected when I began…).