Developing Skills Quickly with the Science of Behavior

There is an old saying that has always bothered me: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. If it's just a proverb to point out how important community is, I get it. However, it feels a bit static to me, as if someone can’t learn, develop and grow. As an avid mountain biker, this saying has never resonated with me because, let’s face it, being fast on a mountain bike is much more fun than being slow and I would much rather ride with my crew than ride alone. In other words, I want to have my cake and eat it too, or more specifically, I want to go fast together. This is where the science of behavior can help.

Mountain biking is made up of several complex behavior chains. There are easier chains (keeping balance, pedaling, braking, and shifting your weight) and there are more complex chains (scanning terrain to find lines, adapting body position, wheelies, jumping, and getting over large obstacles). As a biker develops their skills in these (and more) areas, they have the ability pick up and maintain speed. On a team, developing the skills in each other is the key to getting the team to go faster and farther.

Much like a mountain biker, a leader can use behavioral science to develop skills quickly. Here are the steps to do so:

Set a goal. It can be a specific event or improvement in a critical result measure(s). Whenever possible, allow the group to collaborate on the goal and the success outcomes. My crew and I set a goal to ride the Palisade Plunge by the end of the year, which is 32 miles of physically demanding singletrack with a descent of 6000 feet.

Set subgoals. Subgoals can be individual, or group focused, and they should all tell you if you’re moving in the right direction and allow you to see improvements much faster than if only using the main goal. To achieve our goal of completing the "Plunge," I have several subgoals, including improving my average mile per hour, increasing the length of the trail I do at one time, and increasing the level of difficulty of the trails I regularly ride. Other members of the crew have different goals—each set to help us achieve our main goal.

Pinpoint behaviors that will help achieve the goals. Select behaviors critical to mission success that need to be developed as habits. These are actions that one person (or the whole team) needs to develop to achieve the goal. For me, I am currently focused on the critical behavior of body position (arms and knees bent, hips behind the seat, looking up) while on steep descents. For more information on how to pinpoint, here is a great article.               

Session those behaviors. Sessioning is a fancy word for deliberate practice. Find opportunities to practice the pinpointed behaviors that will help you achieve your goal until those skills become habits. We do this by selecting trails that have multiple opportunities to practice the developing behaviors and by stopping on the trail to repeat the behavior over and over. This way we are building the skills necessary to complete our goal.

Reinforce, coach, and ask questions. Behaviors need reinforcement to strengthen them. Providing high rates of positive reinforcement will not only help others develop their skills faster but also makes it more likely they will be engaged and motivated in the future. People are not going to find success all the time. This is where good coaching is useful. Show them how to do the behavior successfully—walk them through what they need to do. For my group, it might be, “Let's practice that obstacle and this time try...”  Finally, ask lots of questions to help the team clarify how they achieved success. Questions like, “What did you do differently this time?” or “How did you do that?” can help someone pick out the subtle differences in their behavior that allowed them to do something they could not do before. All three of these things should be done often and in the moment.          

Following these steps will help you and your crew develop important skills and achieve goals. In the world of mountain biking, I want to go fast and far. So maybe we need to ditch the proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” and replace it with something that recognizes that fast and far are achievable with deliberate practice. I am not sure what the proverb would be, but I promise you, both fast and far are attainable with the use of behavioral science.

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.