What does it take to become good at what you do?
In asking that question, I don’t mean just being reasonably good. I mean extremely skilled. Being excellent at what you do. Having others note the competence, capability and capacity by which you perform your role.
There is an interesting challenge in exploring what that means. What performing the role that you are responsible for at a peak level involves. This depends on a variety of factors. It starts with a clear-eyed perception of the role that you play. It expands to encompass a definition of excellence. And it requires the ability to objectively self-assess where you personally land on an overall continuum.
Part of what messes up those perceptions are the various models and frameworks and guidelines that exist that purport to explain how a given role functions or process is performed. If we take project management as an example, there are a variety of models that can lead to entirely different perceptions. Those certified with PMI tend towards a very PMBOK-centred view of what the role is supposed to be. Agile adherents are the same. Those certified to the graduated scales of IPMA have a very different assessment of where competent project management starts and stops. So do those who subscribe to the PRINCE methodology.
The problem with all of these models is that their perspectives start with the philosophy of a framework and the tenets of a process, and build out from there. They ask what good project management looks like in a very circumscribed view, one that doesn’t necessarily include the stakeholders that actually care about the results. They conform to a theoretical idea of excellence, not a practical demonstration.
Ask a client or a sponsor or a steering committee member what excellent project management looks like, and you are likely to get very different perspectives than what the processes espouse. The value of project management ultimately depends on what organizations are looking for. That in turn influences the practices that get put in place as a result. Motives vary considerably, so what gets adopted as project management and how it is implemented and applied also varies. That’s a feature, not a bug.
Part of the challenge of framing what excellence looks like is about bridging theoretical ideal with practical adoption. It means understanding how purported process needs to be adapted and implemented to make it work. In particular, it means on a personal level knowing how to act—how to employ the tools and approaches successfully—in delivering excellent performance.
I’ve written before about the apprentice-journeyman-master model as a way of thinking about skills improvement. It’s a useful framework, in that it identifies critical stages in development for learning just about any craft or discipline. Even without detailed understanding of the specifics, it is an intuitive framework to explore the evolution of skills and capability.
As an apprentice, the emphasis is on learning. There is mentorship and support and guidance. Apprentices are being familiarized with the essentials of how to accomplish something or perform a process. They do so with oversight and direction. Someone in the apprentice stage learns the fundamentals, and how to operate effectively within those boundaries. They are watched, there is corrective input where necessary, and over time the apprentice becomes sufficiently comfortable performing within normally expected boundaries that they can be relatively self-sufficient.
Attaining self-sufficiency is what is reflected by journeyman. You know the rules, you are able to operate within those expectations, and in a majority of instances you are going to be able to successfully navigate what is required to get work done. The expression “journeyman” is often used as a pejorative; it connotes reliable and serviceable performance, but not outstanding. The key point is that it is a recognized and relevant stage in progression in a role. Reliability is the hallmark; the expectation is that someone at the journeyman level will reliably and consistently perform, conforming to expectations and working within the norms of what is expected.
Attaining mastery represents a whole new level of accomplishment, with very different capacities and capabilities. Someone who is master of a craft or discipline has a finely nuanced understanding of it. They appreciate the norms and conventions of how things are done, and they also understand why these guidelines exist. At a level of mastery, there isn’t just appreciation for why the rules are the rules, but also when they are inappropriate, inapplicable or need to be adjusted. Mastery involves not just being able to perform superbly and well within guidelines, but where to creatively respond and adapt when situations fall outside the norm.
It’s reasonable to suggest that we all aspire to some level of mastery in our performance. Anyone who genuinely cares about what they do will want to excel. The challenge is how to develop that level of excellence. How do you move past proficient understanding, and actually get to exceptional? What does it take to build out your knowledge, skills and abilities and go from competent to extraordinary? What amount of investment is required and how long does it take to get here and do this well?
When I was building my company, I came to appreciate that from the time someone was hired to the point where they were able to reliably perform was typically a minimum of about six months. That is a significant investment, not just in terms of money but in time and effort. This is not just about building skills as a consultant, but learning a philosophy of how we deliver our services and why. It is a process of immersion, building confidence and understanding and context to be able to perform.
That is not to say that by the time those six months were up, they were able to be parachuted into any situation and thrive. In the context of Interthink, this was the effort to get to a journeyman level. They could participate and contribute to an engagement, interact with clients and successfully navigate an overall process in a way that reflected our philosophy and principles of how we worked. Mastery was some level beyond.
For some, this was a frustrating experience. We hired for talent and potential, and sought out people who already had exceptional skills. The base expectation was that we were hiring people who were already competent and had a level of accomplishment. We looked for motivation and ambition and a desire to excel. Very often these qualities come with the sufficient ego, drive and confidence to suggest that they already felt they had what it takes. The idea that this was the start of a much different learning curve was a struggle for some.
For anyone journeying to excellence, that is part of the challenge. Embracing mastery means realizing that there is always more to learn, and further room to grow and evolve. Sometimes that is frustrating. Sometimes that is humbling. Potential for growth can inspire and motivate, but it can also feel overwhelming and unending. In the context of my company, not everyone was prepared to take that journey. Some thrived, while others fundamentally wrestled with what felt like starting their learning journey over again (or worse, unlearning what they had come to accept as truths that didn’t have a place in how we deliver services and think about work).
I was reminded about this when I came across a video in my social media feed a few months ago. Well beyond the walls of business, it explores what it takes to become a fighter pilot in the US Air Force. That voyage is not for the faint of heart. The base qualification is a four year degree. Before you even see a plane, you also need to be come an officer in the Air Force. Those paths may be combined, and they may be separate. There is a foundational base of skill building and competence that is expected before even starting on the path to earning ones wings.
The first stage of actual flight training is an eight-week program of learning to handle a simple propeller plane. It is both an entry into basic flight skills development, and a means of screening and scrutinizing whether a candidate has what it takes to proceed to the next level. That is followed by six intensive months flying a high performance propeller plane and another six months in a supersonic trainer.
Thus far, the emphasis of learning has been on flying and handling higher performance and more challenging planes. After this initial entree, candidates finally work through the initial eight-week fighter training program, followed by another nine months of advanced combat training, before a three month deployment to a combat base. Graduating from this finally earns status as a wingman, and a first non-graded flight.
This entire journey is a long and progressively calibrated exercise, where every move and action is scrutinized, evaluated, discussed and corrected. Every training flight is the result of extensive planning the day before, hours of prep, perhaps an hour of flight and an thorough debrief. Sixty minutes in the air can result in six hours of debrief, reviewing every action and identifying where and how improvement is possible. To get to flight lead or to become an instructor pilot is another three or four years of training beyond.
Few of us are scrutinized in our work to this degree. For many, the closest that our performance comes to some form of debrief is a pro-forma half-hour evaluation at the end of the year. How incredibly valuable and helpful—if humbling—would it be if we were, though?
We often think that attainment of mastery is enough. That when we get there, we will have arrived. We will be capable and competent and confident. The reality is anything but. The more that I learn, the more I appreciate there still much more to learn.
For any given dimension of my role—facilitation, problem solving, planning, improvement, decision making and beyond—there are a variety of tools and perspectives I know well, others that I am at least passingly aware of and still more that I have to discover. As I find myself in new situations and confronted by new challenges, I continually evolve and recalibrate my approach to the circumstances that are present and what is needed in that moment.
I have come to appreciate that the path to excellence is a never-ending journey, but a rewarding one. It is one we find ourselves on when we stop resting on the laurels of past success. We discover it when we get past “this situation is just like this last one, so I’ll do the same thing” to value all the ways it is in fact uniquely different from the last one. We continue the journey as we find new resources, new perspectives, new ideas and new tools. We know we are making progress when we come to new forks in the path, with new options and choices before us.
There is no universal place of excellence, and no amount of knowing that means you have arrived. Excellent is not something you are; excellence is a process of becoming. It is the ultimate intersection of capability, potential and situation. Excellence is what emerges when you bring the breadth of what you know to the situation you find yourself in, and strive to find the optimal way forward in that particular moment. The path through the stages of apprenticeship and journeyman is well defined and relatively knowable. Exploring mastery is a process without end.