Improving Performance: Some Specific Techniques
Our page on Identifying Areas for Development explains more about how to identify your strengths and weaknesses. It also explains that the way in which you frame your ‘problem’ or challenge will affect the way that you choose to address it.
This page provides more information about some techniques that you can use to start to address problems and challenges, and bring about personal change.
Improving Your Skills by Developing Your Weaknesses
There are a number of ways in which you can start to work on areas of weakness. In drawing up a plan for your personal development, it can be helpful to include several different methods to address problems. This helps to maintain interest.
- Formal courses or learning opportunities, whether leading to qualifications or not;
- More informal learning experiences such as reading, mentoring or shadowing (and see our page on Learning from Mentoring for more about this);
- Applying your formal learning deliberately in a particular situation, to see what happens; and
- Direct learning from your own experience, through a process of reflection (see our page on Reflective Practice for more) and expertise transfer.
Which you choose, and when, will depend on many factors, including financial implications, because formal courses and qualifications usually cost money, and also the value that you think you are likely to get out of them.
Expertise transfer is the process of drawing on your existing areas of expertise and learning to apply them in slightly different ways. In effect, it is a way of making sense of your challenges by using what you already know from another setting.
The key to expertise transfer is to identify something that you are really good at. Many people, especially when they are finding something difficult, find it hard to identify anything at which they are ‘expert’. But in this case, it means something:
- That you can do relatively easily;
- Where you do not need to be supervised; and
- That you like or, at worst, feel comfortable doing.
It is helpful to identify something that has several stages to it, rather than just one.
Expertise transfer in practice
Identify the key challenge that you are facing, in as much detail as possible. For example, you may find it hard to do written work because you never quite know where to start.
Identify something that you do really well. This might be at work, or outside work, at home, or when you were studying, or a hobby.
Think about and list all the skills that you use to do that thing well. Whatever level of detail works for you is fine, but do think about them carefully in terms of not just the skill, but what you do with it.
Now think about how each of those skills might help you do the challenge that you have identified. Again, think about what you might do with the skill to help you address the challenge.
Finally, consider whether your challenge now ‘makes sense’: do you have the skills you need to do the job?
Learning from Mistakes
One of the most powerful ways to learn and develop is from making mistakes. While nobody would advocate deliberately setting out to do things wrong, mistakes happen to everyone, especially if you are prepared to take risks and try something new.
You can either treat mistakes as things to be hushed up and never spoken about again, or as learning opportunities. Making mistakes:
- Gives you a chance to do things wrong, and then reflect about how you could and/or should have done them differently; and
- Can, if you are lucky, uncover real truths about good ways of working and improve relationships.
Case study: A cautionary tale of a lost temper
Jan was not in a good mood. She had been under a lot of pressure at work. She was a civil servant, managing a small team, all of whom were working very hard and very long hours to meet demands from their senior managers and from ministers for more and more work.
She was currently chairing a meeting of about fifteen people, many of whom were from voluntary organisations. The meeting had been going on about an hour, and the voluntary organisation representatives had spent most of the hour complaining about the lack of support from Jan’s team. So far Jan had listened politely and explained several times that the voluntary organisations were very welcome to do some work on the area if they wished.
“But,” said one of the senior representatives, “we will need your team to provide some secretarial support. If we could just have two people for a few hours a week…”
Jan looked round the room, at the voluntary organisation staff nodding vigorously, and the other civil servants studiously not meeting her eyes, and she lost her temper.
“Look,” she said angrily, “this policy area is just not a priority for ministers. My team is working flat out on other things that ministers are actually interested in. If you want this work done, you’re going to have to do it yourselves. I can present it to ministers for you, but beyond that, no.”
She stopped, appalled. She had tried so hard to be conciliatory, and now she had just thrown several months, if not years’ worth of relationship-building straight out of the window. There was a long pause in the room. Then one of the voluntary organisation representatives said, slowly,
“Thank you for telling us the truth. Nobody’s ever been honest with us about this before in two years of working on this. We’ll set up some working groups and report back to you at the next meeting.”
The relationship improved enormously after that episode, and the group started to work together much more effectively.
Potentially, losing her temper was a huge mistake for Jan. She certainly took away the lesson that self-control was vital and that she needed to work on it.
But she also never forgot the importance of being honest with other people about priorities.
It is not always easy to learn from your mistakes, however. In many organisations—and, indeed, among many individuals—there is a tendency towards allocating blame for anything that goes wrong, rather than a focus on learning from the experience.
It is, therefore, important to develop a personal process that will enable you to learn from your mistakes and move forward positively. With luck, this will influence those around you too.
A Process for Learning from Mistakes
1. Take responsibility: own your error
You cannot learn if you are not prepared to take responsibility for your own errors.
In practice, this may also mean ‘taking the blame’, which may feel counter-intuitive. However, if you are prepared to own your error, you will be able to take action to put it right, openly and transparently.
We generally favour people taking responsibility for their own actions. It is seen as a sign of integrity and honesty. Being prepared to own your errors will therefore improve your reputation in the long term.
You will also avoid the reputational damage of people finding out from another source that you were responsible.
2. See mistakes as an opportunity to learn
Owning your mistakes is not just about being able to take steps to put them right. It is also about learning from them, and ensuring that they don’t happen again.
However, in order to do this, you need to reframe them. You have to stop thinking of them as embarrassing, career-damaging, or negative in any way. Instead, you have to start thinking about them as highlighting lessons for you and others, or for the organisation as a whole.
After all, if you made that mistake, others could do so too. Your actions now could prevent that happening in future.
3. Analyse your mistake in detail
The next step is to analyse your mistake to identify exactly what happened and why.
We don’t mean that you have to dwell on it miserably, constantly thinking about what went wrong. Instead, you need to examine it carefully, looking for the root cause, as a way to prevent it from happening again.
There are several techniques that you can use (the box below outlines two possible options).
Techniques for analysing errors
1. Four questions
- What was I trying to do?
- What went wrong?
- When did it go wrong?
- Why did it go wrong?
2. Five Whys
The ‘five whys’ technique is a well-known way to explore the root causes of problems and mistakes. The technique is simple. You start with a statement of the problem: in this case, the error that occurred.
You then ask why that occurred.
Once you have an answer, you ask why again, and dig deeper into the cause of the answer.
You repeat this until you have asked ‘why?’ five times. This is generally enough to have reached the root cause. You can then consider what do to address it.
This process highlights what went wrong, and also the action that is needed to avoid it happening again.
4. Put the lessons into practice
Identifying the root causes and the lessons from your mistakes is actually the easy part.
The difficult bit is what comes next: putting it into practice.
Unfortunately, when you are busy—which is, of course, when most mistakes happen—it may be tempting to just slip back to your old habits or approaches. It takes time to learn a new habit or work on a new skill, or develop a new process.
At this stage, you may need to revisit your personal development plan and add some new objectives or activities to help you to embed your new learning.
5. Review your learning
Finally, you need to take time to review your learning—which is why it is a good idea to include something about this in your personal development plan!
A final word
There are many different ways in which to learn and develop your skills. This page outlines some options, but there are many others.
The key is to recognise what will work for you, and to make sure that you do not focus on just one option. Variety is, after all, the spice of life, and this applies to personal development too.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn how to set yourself effective personal goals and find the motivation you need to achieve them. This is the essence of personal development, a set of skills designed to help you reach your full potential, at work, in study and in your personal life.
The second edition of or bestselling eBook is ideal for anyone who wants to improve their skills and learning potential, and it is full of easy-to-follow, practical information.