Deliberate Practice – the Leadership Kata


A kata is a set of actions that are assembled in sequence to help you train your mind and body to perform with precision, proper form, and to help you develop muscle memory so that these forms are available to you without thinking. The word “kata” comes from the martial arts. At the Agile2011 conference there was a tutorial titled “The Agile Leadership Kata: Discovering the Practice of Leadership” by Tom Perry. We applied the kata to the practice of leadership. Slides form the session can be found here.

Stephen Denning refers to leadership communication as performance art. All performance requires practice. Katas are a practice tool. Why bother? As a leader, why does it mater if I practice? If my current set of leadership tools are working, do I really need to develop new ones?

A Fred Brooks study pointed out that given equal experience, some people perform better than others. Those that stood out are the ones that seek to learn, improve, get better at what they do. They are passionate about learning. They have a need to succeed. Developing expertise takes time and effort. Malcolm Gladwell‘s book Outliers describes the effort and practice that makes Bill Gates, and The Beatles standouts. The magic number? Ten-thousand hours of practice to become an expert.

If we accept that practice is a necessary part of developing skills as a leader, what do we do next? We engage in deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice has specific criteria.

  1. It has to be designed specifically to improve performance.
  2. It is designed to cause failure, to put you under stress.
  3. It has to be repeatable. Like learning a piece of music. You have to be able to do it over and over.
  4. It has feedback loops so that you know the difference between right and wrong.

When you engage in deliberate practice, you are failing a lot.  It’s not much fun. You are reminded of how wrong you are over and over again. Iterating on the four steps is working if we are improving.

During the workshop we did an exercise to develop a kata for deliberate practice on a leadership topic. At our table we chose individuals and interactions over processes and tools, with a focus on good communication. The basic framework goes like this…

In any given day we have several conversations with people. These conversations fall on a continuum of quality. Some are great conversations, where ideas are exchanged, healthy conflict occurs, where we learn something, where we teach something, or where we have influenced a change. Then there are the conversations that yield little. Their occurrence adds no value to the participants, and had they not happened, the participants would not have been either better or worse off. At the far end of the spectrum there are the conversations that are destructive. They leave you drained, upset, confused, and generally worse off. Deliberate practice is about improving the quality of conversations, eliminating the bad ones, (or turning bad ones into good ones), and increasing the probability of the good ones (or making the good ones even better). So we chose to focus on the outliers–the conversations at the extremes. The very good and the very bad.

The kata is to evaluate the outlier conversations to learn how to improve them.

We developed a set of questions to evaluate our conversations.

  1. What did I assume going into the conversation?
  2. What did I observe?
  3. What are my judgements about the observation?
  4. What is my cultural bias?
  5. What are my rules and filters?
  6. How do I know we understood each other?
  7. How did I know we miscommunicated?
  8. How can I validate my understanding?

Then we journal this and cycle back with the person with whom we had the conversation–go through the list with them–roll what we learn into the next conversation.

There are many other questions I could ask myself, and as a follow-up, I was thinking about which of the many questions would be Pareto optimal? The list would be different for each person, and would be continually refined as we learn more about our communication strengths and weaknesses, where we need to focus, and the nature of the conversations that we have.

There are different types of katas. When I think about learning a new piece of music, I use a variety of methods to learn.

  • Slow things down to the point you can pay attention to every note being played.
  • Speed things up to build endurance and agility.
  • Work on small chunks, phrases, parts of the whole.
  • Work on the whole, end to end. See the big picture.
  • Master the technical, the parts that require coordination and concentration until they become automatic.
  • Master the emotional, tease out the bits that make you feel something.
  • Experimentation and improvisation, which is about making the piece your own, a part of who you are, and riffing on what is happening around you.
  • Practicing in pairs or small groups, to get the back and forth right, to have you listen and then to complement what you hear.

The goal is to get to a state where what you are doing simply flows, and to be able to adapt the flow to suit the context. Now think about these methods in the context of communication. How could we use them?

Ever had a conversation go all wrong because of one ill-timed phrase? What about being silent when that was the wrong thing to do? How about riffing in a completely different direction than where your partner wanted to go n a conversation? These represent opportunities to improve how you communicate. Reflecting through disciplined, deliberate practice is one way to learn and avoid making the same mistakes again.

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