What Squash can teach us about learning environments (Part 3)

Continued from Part 2 (This blog post does not read very well if you haven’t already read Part 1 and Part 2). The full article is also available as a PDF document.

Developing skills requires keeping the game alive

Stefan Edberg does an overhead tennis smash
Stefan Edberg does an overhead tennis smash. © Dan Kneipp

A key requirement to develop gameplay skills is to keep the ball in play. Strokeplay that results in ending the game quickly, such as an aggressive serve, followed by a weak return, and ending in a hard smash, will not help improve the quality of the game. Similarly, in learning environments, performing only short and repetitive tasks repeatedly will develop a good worker with a narrow range of skills, but it will not create a skilled craftsman. Workers who try to finish a task quickly rather than effectively will create results of poor quality. Learning environments, therefore, should help people take the time they need the first time they perform a task. A culture needs to exist where there is no shame attached in someone being able to admit that they don’t have the knowledge to perform a task. The short tasks should then be extended to cover other related tasks, creating a continuous string of inter-related tasks. A common organizational paradigm in software development environments used to be separating teams by competence. One bunch of people wrote the GUIs, another wrote the services, another managed the models, and the DBAs looked after the database schema. Each group had some knowledge on a narrow set of tasks and problems, and members of one group rarely moved into another group. “A team for each tier” is a common organizational anti-pattern even today in larger organizations, and leads to poor results and skills development. A good software developer, given the need to translate a functional requirement to a working system, will understand how to build a user interface, services, object models, database models, and integration structures to fulfill that requirement. This end-to-end knowledge is analogous to the range of strokeplay a skilled squash player develops in order to keep the game in play, and it is obtained through practicing the positive pattern of “everyone touches all tiers”. By keeping the game alive, the long game emerges, which broadens the skills of a player.

A superficial and simplified model of the game soon gets replaced by a complex and evolving one

A left boast, where a shot is taken off the left side-wall. Observe the other player watching his opponent as he takes the shot while moving into the "T". Also observe that the player taking the shot is already in position with both his shot selection and footwork in place.
The player is about to play a "boast", where the shot is taken off the left side-wall. Observe the other player watching his opponent as he takes the shot while moving into the "T". Also observe that the player taking the shot is already in position with both his shot selection and footwork in place. The dotted blue line shows the projected return trajectory of the shot.

On the surface of things, Squash seems to have a deceptively simple rule. All shots must come off the front wall. On that token, it would make sense for players to keep complete focus on the front wall. The reality isn’t that simple. The practical nuances of this rule is that players can use any of the other 3 walls to place their shots, provided that the shot eventually comes off the front wall. If a player just watches the front wall, then shots will seem to be unpredictable and erratic, lending to the myth that Squash is a game that is built on instinct. Skilled players know how to “slow down time”, giving them more time to select the optimal shot, and not to make instinctive returns. Experienced players watch the other player as they hit the ball, understand the trajectory of the ball, and make a movement towards the best position to take the next shot. Understanding the trajectory of the ball, with experience, becomes a reaction. A professional player doesn’t think, “Ah, my opponent has hit the ball towards the middle of the left side-wall of the court, so then ball will bounce off that wall, hit the front wall in the lower mid-section, and it will finally come in to land on the lower right-hand corner in the front of court. The learned reaction would be watch the ball being hit towards the left side-wall, then to make a controlled movement towards the front-left of the court while evaluating the optimal shot selection, while watching the ball come off the left side-wall and head towards the front wall, completing the footwork necessary to make a balanced shot as the ball heads towards the right-hand corner in the front of the court, making the shot and then recovering immediately to return to position of control, and keeping an eye of the opponent as they move towards making their shot. This constant process of observation, movements, strokeplays, and shots is a recursive process, and a beautiful game emerges when all the elements combine to create a long rally where the full range of the game is explored. Similarly, when we first encounter a new domain or subject where we have to work, things can appear deceptively simple. For example, surely logistics is the business of picking up stuff from one place, and dropping it off in another? Yet it takes around 10 years of experience in order to become a seasoned Logistics professional, where the nuances of pick-up bookings, pick-ups, routing, transport optimization, consolidations, cross-docking, storage, allocations, picking, loading, delivery bookings, and making deliveries come together to form a complete game. Efficiently run logistics companies are few and far between, and the best logistics companies treat their truck drivers and warehouse workers as their biggest assets.

To master a sport means becoming a lifelong learner. Your game never becomes perfect, it just gets better or worse.

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." Michael Jordan
"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." Michael Jordan

There are very few athletes that will claim that their game is perfect. Several examples exist of spectacular defeats following the claim of being invincible. To truly learn a sport requires that we always remain students, and never assume we’ve “arrived”. One of the easiest ways to measure the knowledge culture in an organization is to try to spot the type of books there are on people’s desks, if any. For instance in a software development environment, I would expect to see a few books on programming, design, or architecture books lying around on people’s desks. Even better, it is a pleasant surprise to spot books on mathematics, biology, city planning, or better writing on a software developer’s desk, a sign that the team is actively thinking laterally. Cross-pollination across disciplines is innovation fuel, and the best knowledge workers are constantly seeking to learn laterally. Great athletes, similarly, learn by observing and participating in other sports. Some, like the great basketball player  Michael Jordan, have enough courage to attempt a professional career in a different sport like baseball. Our knowledge of a discipline is never complete even though it might occasionally feel like it in our working environments. At best, the knowledge might be sufficient to complete our tasks within the narrow confines of the expectations others have from us.

The feeling of returning to a sport after a long lapse is not dissimilar to the feeling we have return to work after a long holiday. In Squash, these long lapses from the game are very telling. The ball doesn’t feel right on the racket. Movements in the court do not feel smooth. Players get in each other’s way frequently. Shots appear crude and lack the elegance apparent in controlled strokes. The entire game feels scrappy, and victories, should they happen, will seem hollow. The gap between what our games once used to be, and what they are, become painfully apparent. Only by playing frequently and re-discovering the dedication with which we once learned the game can we hope to return to form.

Don’t encourage heroes or heroics

Pilot fish feeding off the parasites on a shark. However, not all symbiotic relationships are this beneficial.
Pilot fish feeding off the parasites on a shark. However, not all symbiotic relationships are this beneficial.

Reading the ball early makes all the difference between reacting to a shot or being prepared in advance to take a shot. Beginners to the game often rely on their instinct and fast-reaction times rather than being prepared. Reactively hurtling or lunging to get to a ball and being able to pull off a successful return stroke might feel great, but gives very little time for recovery. An advanced player would find no trouble returning a shot taken in hurried heroics while the other player is still recovering.

In market-driven companies, “time-to-market” often becomes a measurement that displaces other metrics, and individuals who can get things done quickly are perceived as being the most effective. In these environments, retrospective analysis is perceived as a luxury, and individuals have a tendency to hop between putting out one fire after another. In these environments, the best firefighters tend to assume a “hero” status, individuals who bring the organization from the fiery pit of despair (“nothing works”) in a blaze of glory. Weak leaders and heroes have a symbiotic relationship. Weak leaders build a career on being able to manage  crises, and rely upon heroes to solve them. Heroes gain importance by being able to solve the crises, and bask in the favours that it wins them from their leadership.

Heroics aren’t always done for the right reasons.
Heroics aren’t always done for the right reasons.

Firefighting to solve simple tasks, or those tasks where the relationship between cause and effect is obvious, fosters false heroes. A few years ago, I remember encountering a manager who promised bonuses to his testing team based on the number of defects found by a tester. As a result, we would usually see a sudden spike in the number of defects around bonus-time, with individual defects being reported several times or being structured as multiple defects. For instance, in a webshop project, we had products organized into different categories where each category had roughly 10 products. The addition of any product within a specific category to a shopping cart produced an error. Instead of a single defect report which explained how the addition of any product from that category produced an error, we received 10 defect reports, one for each product in that category. The total number of defects would also show up in management reports, and resulted in a perception that the entire system was flaky as the number of defects were in their hundreds. The testers were perceived as the saviours of the project as their diligence had managed to uncover a huge pile of unknown defects, and the development team were increasing perceived as sloppy. At the end of the project, we found some serious defects that had gone unnoticed. The focus on creating superficial defect reports had distracted a lot of testers from delving into more serious defects.

In strokeplay, the best shots come about as a result of being able to read the ball early, pre-positioning before the ball has arrived, and delving deep to analyze the options for an optimal shot. The results define the line between a learning player and stagnant one.

Force experts to play with beginners

Not all experts are willing to play with beginners
Not all experts are willing to play with beginners

Left to themselves, most game players would want to engage with others at their own level. Playing a beginner in squash isn’t usually much fun, especially with those beginners that aren’t aware of some unwritten codes of squash, such as never willfully harming another player (this is very hard for football players to understand). It is usually tiresome to play someone intent on practicing golf swings in a confined space, or someone who dives headfirst in trying to get a passing shot (it’s a hardwood floor). Nevertheless, having experts play with beginners is the only way a beginner will improve and understand the nature of expertise. The seemingly effortless grace that underlines the movements of a professional athlete is something that can only be emulated with practice. One of my early squash coaches believed that a Squash player can only be classified as an expert if they have logged at least 10,000 hours of playing players better than themselves.

Learning is a better goal than winning

Victories last a moment. Knowledge lasts a lifetime. © Getty
Victories last a moment. Knowledge lasts a lifetime. © Getty

Winning is a short-term measurement of success, but being able to win at the present isn’t a guarantee of being able to win in the future. An initial failure where a person is given the chance to learn so that they can succeed more consistently in the future is a good learning environment. In contrast, environments that measure meaningless metrics like “number of issues solved per hour”, “average duration spent resolving an issue”, or “number of source code lines written per day” encourage problem resolution and volume production but not learning. For instance, it’s easy to spot the call center where employees are being measured by “number of calls taken per hour” and “average duration per call”. If a call center agent spends too long resolving a call, and thus lowering their performance metrics, they can simply pick up and disconnect the next few calls (pick up the receiver, and put it right back down) to improve their performance metrics. The next time you are on hold, and get disconnected the moment your call is finally picked up by an agent, it is probably because the agent is being measured by a meaningless metric. A learning organization is measured by the degree of success with which challenges, issues, and tasks are completed. To return to the example of the call center, a call center agent within a learning organization would be measured by how successfully they were able to complete the issue the customer had, and not by how long it took to resolve the customer’s issues. Failing to successfully resolve a customer’s issue may result in the customer calling again, or becoming so frustrated that they terminate their relationship with the company.

In conclusion

The world of work is changing at an ever faster pace, increasing the demands on our own skills. Applying analogies from sports like Squash can help make skills development a continuous and integral process in work practices, rather than treating it as an occasional means to catch up with the latest and greatest thinking. Tooling and information access for developing skills are increasingly getting better, although skills development depends more on attitude than anything else. The comfort created by constant stability can lead to skills stagnation. The presence of metaphorical walls shielding us away from competitive forces makes this stagnation worse. Climbing over the fences of our comfort zones and comforting ourselves with the unknown can lead feelings of vulnerability or even defeat. At the same time, these vulnerable moments are those that give us the chances to develop and extend our skills. Sports like Squash can provide us with a structure for developing our skills, sharpening our attitude until we become lifelong learners, never achieving an imaginary level of perfection, but getting constantly better. New situations in our work may surprise us, but with the right attitude, they won’t leave us feeling helpless. And when we are able to find a temporary balance between the external and internal forces that shape us, it is then we are at our best.

© 2006-2011 Indranil Bhattacharya

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