What Is A Practice Model? And Why Is It Essential For Every Innovator?

From Forbes magazine, by John Kao


I've noted many times that Innovation is one of the most used and abused terms in the management lexicon. I say this because while innovation matters more than ever these days, at the same time the word is groaning under the weight of multiple, vague meanings. It needs to be rescued from the “bumper sticker” level of understanding and restored to the level of a profound practice.


For me, the ability to innovate depends on developing a set of CAPABILITIES. What do I mean? Take the example of playing the piano. We don't learn to play by hearing a lecture or viewing PowerPoint presentations about the piano. In order to gain proficiency, we need to sit down at the piano and practice. That of course begs the question of what we mean by practice. 


Recently I had help unpacking the deep significance of practice from Dan Tepfer, one of the world’s brightest lights on the jazz and new music scene. Dan brings a lot to the table, not just musical talent of uncommon grace, but heavy chops as a coder fluent in digital matters. His comments on practice have powerful applicability to any innovation agenda.


For Dan, the essence of practice involves continuity. In his words, “if you're not doing it continuously, you're not practicing. In fact, you don't have a practice. You can't just do practice once in a while.”  He also describes practice as a process requiring a level of attention and mindfulness sufficient to turn every moment into a search for depth and authenticity.  

You can't learn how to play the piano by reading books or hearing lectures. You have to practice. Developing innovation proficiency obeys the same principle.


Dan also sees practice as requiring a high level of specificity. And this is where his habit of keeping a practice diary is so important. This is Dan’s secret weapon. For the past fifteen years, Dan has meticulously noted his intentions for a given practice session and his assessment of the results. The process can involve writing down the minutiae of certain fine-grained harmonic principles or the nuances of how a particular part of a Goldberg variation should be played. He keeps this record of his practice journey in a Moleskin notebook and refers to the process of writing as an important ritual that sets the stage for engaging with practice and for reflecting on the results. 


When I asked how he knew what to practice giving the vast array of options available to him, I was surprised to hear him say that it didn't really matter. “As long as you work on something that's genuinely challenging to you, but that involves the right amount of challenge - not too much and not too little - it doesn't matter really what you're practicing.”


Focus also matters. Dan told me, “You can only do a few things at a time and what you realize is that when you do these few things, they're incredibly valuable. You just kind of give up on doing everything. The feeling of being overwhelmed is because we think we can do everything, which is nonsense. The practice diary is what solved that feeling of being overwhelmed for me because what the practice diary shows you is that there are only a certain number of hours in the day and to do quality work, to address problems fully, takes time.”


Integrally woven into the notion of practice for Dan is the value of making mistakes. He noted, “My improvement as a musician is entirely predicated on my noticing that I messed up and having the humility and presence of mind to say, ‘Okay I better deal with that.’ I'm literally excited when mistakes happen and if someone messes up in a lesson it's like, ‘Oh this is great; we've now identified something we can genuinely work on and we know that if we fix this, we're going to be in a better place than we were yesterday. And what a wonderful thing.’”


It is common when thinking about developing innovation proficiency to want to tap into the ideas of an established thought leader, use a playbook, or become proficient with an existing framework. We rarely think about this process in terms of practice or developing capabilities. Yet everything in an innovator’s repertoire - whether it be highly effective collaboration, ideation, brainstorming or applying principles of design thinking - requires practice. At an organizational level, developing the capabilities for innovation benefit from the practice of such capabilities as strategic foresight, digital collaboration, venture incubation, learning models, partnership and outreach abilities, talent practices and more. We rarely think about these as proficiencies that require systematic practice and attention, yet practice is the only way that improvement can occur.


So, the question I have for you is: what is your practice model for innovation?


Click here to read the article on the Forbes website.


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