When you assign a task, deliverable or project to a team member, how can you ensure the outcome will meet your expectations? How many times did it happen to you that you asked someone to work on something - and the end result wasn't what you expected? If a team member doesn't master the skills to execute the task - how do you guide him or her through it?
Since we almost always face time constraints to get work done, spending time on work that doesn't produce the desired outcome, is a waste we can't afford. The clock is ticking for that customer proposal, feature release, office moving project, new employee hire need, and so forth. You'll have to work smart. To enable smart work - ensuring the outcome meets your expectations - you need to make tasks goal-directed and provide timely and targeted feedback.
Teachers face a similar challenge. How students spend their time on a learning activity determines the benefits they gain. If a student spends lots of time learning the wrong approach, or doesn't focus on just the skills and knowledge he lacks - precious time is wasted.
In a way, any project or task you give to team members, is a practice - an activity in which they engage and develop their knowledge and skills. When we use practice in the context of this article, we refer to the work team members do to accomplish a goal with the added leaders' intention to facilitate learning and improve performance.
Leaders who aim to continuously improve performance, enable continuous learning - without wasting valuable time - should create an environment where team members can practice and receive feedback toward achieving the expected outcomes or goals.
The illustration below (Ambruse et al.) shows how practice produces observed performance, which allows for targeted feedback which guides further practice. The targeted goal guides the process: what practice or task helps achieve the goal, what performance should be observed and how it should be measured, and what feedback should be given.
Practice makes perfect - but deliberate (goal-directed) practice is what predicts continued learning in a given field (Ericsson, Krampe & Tescher-Romer, 2003). Those working toward a specific goal are more motivated, focus on the right activities and can better monitor their progress.
What leaders can do to optimize practice, is to define and convey specific goals. Team members easily misinterpret the stated goal and work - increasing the risk of working in the wrong direction. Without clarity, team members are left with filling in the blanks based on their own experience, interpretations and assumptions. When leaders do not clearly define the goals, it is difficult for team members to know what to do and how to do it. Leaders should define goals in a way that tells clearly what to do and how to monitor and measure their performance.
A goal should also be attainable (Gilbert, 1997). It should be a reasonable yet challenging goal (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 2003). Goals that are too challenging or not challenging enough are demotivating (see article about Motivation).
An effective tool to clarify goals and support the learning while work is in progress, is to ask questions as checkpoints: "Do you have a full understanding of the customer needs?", "Are you following programming best practices?", "How have you broken down the work into smaller pieces?".
To develop mastery also requires enough quantity of practice and therefore leaders should provide enough practice opportunities. Meanwhile, leaders should know that the learning impact on performance improvement isn't a straight line. As the figure (Ambrose et al.) shows below, the early and late phases of learning tend to show relatively little effect on performance. This is an important concept for leaders to understand to be able to effectively support the development process. A programmer learning a new programming language might not be able to develop a new feature while in the early phase of learning - which does not mean learning is not happening. Early on, a customer service rep may not have enough knowledge to answer a broad enough spectrum of customer questions to be able to efficiently resolve customer calls - even though the rep is gaining knowledge. Performance improvement only kicks in once a critical mass of knowledge is developed. Once someone reaches the critical mass, performance accelerates while learning continues.
To maximize learning, you need both practice and feedback. Ambrusa (2005) defines feedback as information given to team members about their performance that guides future behavior. Feedback is like your GPS. Feedback provides you the information about your current state of knowledge and performance that can guide you in working toward the learning goal. Effective feedback can tell team members what they do and do not understand, where their performance is going well or poorly, and how they should direct their subsequent efforts (Ambrose et al.). Without feedback, team members might go in the wrong direction, work on the wrong activities and waste valuable time - without even knowing it. According to Gilbert (1973), having access to performance and feedback information in itself is one of the most effective ways to improve performance.
One obstacle for giving feedback is people's fear of critical feedback and failure. It is understandable people want to avoid being criticized and feel uncomfortable being exposed and vulnerable. Leaders should help team members understand it is a continuous and collaborative learning process - delaying and avoiding feedback increases the risk of poor performance - while early feedback increases their changes of success. Team members should share their work early - ask peers for feedback - to accelerate their process and maximize the outcome.
Second, people may also avoid giving feedback - afraid of creating conflict or being perceived as critical. Leaders should teach team members how to give and receive feedback without getting personal and directed to continuous improvement and learning. As they say: keep your eye on the ball (goal).
Both the content and timing of feedback impact performance. The feedback should inform the team members where they are relative to their goals and what they need to do to improve. The feedback should also be given when they can make most use of it.
Feedback is most effective when it explicitly communicates to team members about some specific aspects of their performance relative to specific target criteria, and when it provides information that helps them progress toward meeting those criteria (Ambrose et al). Only knowing the end score isn't impacting performance as much. Effective feedback involves giving a clear picture of how current knowledge or performance differs from the goal and providing information on adjustments that can help adjust the reach the goal.
The timing of feedback involves how soon feedback is given (typically, earlier is better) and how often (typically, more frequent is better). There is also such as thing as too much feedback. Effective learning involves focus on specific learning goals - too much feedback overwhelms the learner and hinders learning. Too frequent feedback reduces the opportunity to practice, self-learn and correct.
In summary, to improve team performance leaders should offer practice opportunities that is goal directed and provide targeted feedback.