Outstanding Performance

Exptertise

Knowledge and skill are critical to safe and effective performance during emergency operations and firefighters and officers who perform well on the fireground are respected by their peers. What does it take to develop a high level of expertise?

Believing that they are masters of their craft, some firefighters resist engaging in practice of basic skills such as door entry, nozzle technique, and hose handling (even when their demonstrated skill is far from proficiency). Others engage in this type of practice enthusiastically, serving as their own critic and identifying potential areas of improvement.

In the fire service, years of service is often perceived as a measure of experience. But is this really true? In The Making of an Expert, Ericsson, Prietula, and Cokely (2007) observe that “living in a cave does not make you a geologist. Not all practice makes perfect”. Developing proficiency requires deliberate practice that focuses not on specific areas in need of improvement or development of new knowledge and skill.

Is Going to Fires Enough?

Can a firefighter or fire officer develop the knowledge and skills necessary for a high level of performance on the fireground predominantly from going to fires? Actual performance is important, but it is not sufficient.

Ericsson, Prietula, and Cokely (2007) use learning to play golf as an example of the need for deliberate practice. In the early stages of learning the game, players often begin by learning individual skills and then playing on the course. This generally leads to rapid development of a fundamental level of skill. However, additional time on the course will not necessarily lead to improved performance. Why?

You don’t improve because when you are playing a game, you get only a single chance to make a shot from any given location. You don’t get to figure out how you can correct mistakes. If you were allowed to take five to ten shots from the exact same location on the course, you would bet more feedback on your technique and start to adjust your playing style to improve your control.

Firefighting is similar, probationary firefighters spend considerable time practicing individual skills and learning to integrate them into the team context of company operations. However, after they leave the academy, how much time is spent in deliberate practice? Working on the fireground, you don’t get the opportunity for repetitive practice, and seldom have the opportunity to think about how to improve the effectiveness or efficiency of your work until after the fact. This often becomes even more difficult when individuals advance to the officer’s role.

Deliberate Practice

In his recent book Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin (2008) explores the mystery of where great performance really comes from. This text provides a straightforward examination of current research on expertise the application of deliberate practice and examines how these concepts can be applied in a variety of contexts.

Colvin (2008) identifies that deliberate practice may involve activities specifically focused on performance improvement and practice that is integrated with actual work performance. He describes direct practice using three types of activity as models, music, chess, and sports.

  • In the music model, you practice application of the skill and receive immediate feedback from a teacher or by reviewing a recording (audio or video) of your performance.
  • The chess model involves examination of prior performance by others (i.e., studying the games of chess grand masters). In other domains such as business and the law, this model involves the use of case studies.
  • Effective performance may include both physical and mental elements. The sports model involves conditioning. This is readily applicable to physical skills, but applies to cognitive demands as well. Conditioning in this case may involve developing a deeper level of knowledge or use of simulations to practice decision skills.

When applying the concept of deliberate practice to work activities it is important to identify your goals, what aspect of performance are you trying to improve. During work activity, pay attention to your performance. After the work feedback is critical. This may involve self-reflection, feedback from others, or preferably a combination of both.

Each of these approaches has direct applicability to the fire service. However, it is necessary to approach deliberate practice in an intentional manner by identifying areas of performance that can be improved and developing a plan that includes direct practice and integrates practice and work activity.

Coaching

We can’t necessarily improve our performance without help. Even highly accomplished performers have teachers, coaches, or mentors to help design practice programs, provide feedback on performance and help maintain the motivation and commitment necessary to continued improvement.

Teachers, coaches, and mentors are important to both individual and organizational performance. It is important to identify who will serve in this role as individual needs change and evolve as performance improves. What role do you serve; learner, coach, or (hopefully) both?

Time & Commitment

Developing expertise takes time and effort. World class performers in most any discipline generally need a minimum of 10,000 hours of intense training and practice before reaching that level. There are no shortcuts! It is difficult to develop and maintain the motivation and commitment to sustain this level of effort.

It is easy to look at our current performance level and think that we do quite well and take pride in our accomplishments. However, is this the best we can do? I would contend that good enough isn’t (good enough).

The greater the time invested in deliberate practice, the greater the improvement in performance. Be a student of your craft, seek out feedback, and work diligently to improve your performance.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

References

Ericsson, A., Prietula, M., & Cokely, E. (2007, July-August). Harvard Business Review,, 85(7/8).

Colvin, G. (2008). Talent is overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everybody else. New York: Penguin Group.

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2 Responses to “Outstanding Performance”

  1. Bull Says:

    Thanks for making this available!

  2. David Peterson Says:

    Ed,
    I enjoy your website and blog and the great information available to us. Thank you for your contributions!
    The 10,000 hour idea for mastery is also chronicled in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, “Outliers”. It is a great concept and challenge for all of us.
    Keep on challenging us and know that other professionals are reading your work. Thanks again!
    Sincerely,
    David Peterson
    Wisconsin

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