Mike Speiser writes at GigaOM:
Mathematicians will tell you that the only way to learn math is to do math. Lots of it. The same is true in music and sports. While with math you quickly find out whether you’re right or wrong at a very atomic level with each problem you try to solve, with music a student listens to a song many times before she tries to emulate it — and then gets feedback on a note-by-note basis. And the same goes for sports — the stroke, the kick, the catch, the swing, the run and so on. Practice makes perfect, right?
Yet in business you often find people who have been doing something for a long time and just aren’t very good at it. Why? Lack of feedback. After all, imagine trying to solve math problems and waiting an entire year to get the answers, or hitting 1,000 serves and getting a summary of your performance at your “annual review” rather than after each serve or at the end of a game. Practice only makes perfect when there is frequent, high-quality feedback so that the right adjustments can be made, be it in math, sports, music — or business.
In certain disciplines, like engineering and sales, there is somewhat objective and frequent feedback. Your program compiles without an error and does what it was meant to do. Or you close the deal and make your quota. If, however, you’re in one of the many disciplines in which immediate and objective feedback is not available, practice may not lead to perfection so much as enforce bad habits.
Let’s say you’re a mid-level executive — a GM or product manager of some sort. More than likely, you’re measured by how well you interact with and present to your manager and senior executives. Consequently, you optimize to managing the bureaucracy (your boss in particular) rather than delivering the right product or service to customers. And so does your boss, and her boss, and so on and so on. Here the only thing that you’re practicing and perfecting are your brown-nosing skills. How can you expect to learn in an organization with that type of feedback and incentive system? How can such an organization, by extension, possibly produce excellence?
His case of the large software company vs. the small start-up isn’t entirely convincing, but it’s not hard to apply this to the economic and political issues of the time. Executives receive massive bonuses completely out of sync with the results of the long or even medium term results of their actions. Bills are passed loaded with superfluous “features” and are extremely difficult to evaluate and debug once they become law.