“If you don’t know what you are doing wrong, you can never know what you are doing right.” – Chen Xinhua
Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself talking at work about the benefits of repeatability and consistency. More importantly, I’ve been taking steps to increase the levels of repeatability and consistency that we exhibit in our activities. I’m a big advocate of “just enough process”: finding that balance of enough process to get things done consistently, correctly, and – above all – effectively, but not so much process that we’re sapped of velocity, agility, and focused creativity.
For the most part, people see the value in these initiatives (or at least can’t be bothered to disagree), but every so often I get challenged to explain the benefits. On one recent occasion, in mid-explanation, I recalled a useful example from one of my favourite books.
In reading it again, I think it’s even better than I remembered.
Quoting from Bounce, beginning on page 101 (emphasis is Syed’s own):
In 1992 Chen Xinhua – the Chinese player-turned-coach who transformed my speed and movement with multi-ball training – proposed another career-changing innovation: he asked me to alter the technique of my forehand slice.
At the time, my stroke was highly variable, sometimes played with a high arc, sometimes with a bit of sidespin, often from below the level of the table. I prided myself on the variability of the shot, supposing it to be an aspect of my inventiveness.
Chen took a different view, instructing me to develop a stroke that was identical in every respect on each and every shot. We spent two months repeating the stroke – played with long, sweeping arc, starting from my right ear and finishing a few inches above my ankle and taken at precisely the same height of the net with exactly 80 degrees of knee bend – until it had been ruthlessly encoded and could be played without deviation.
It was a grueling task, and as we clocked up the hours, I began to question whether it was worth the sweat and toil. Only at the end of the process did I come to comprehend the curious power of this adjustment. It was not that the new technique was better or more effective on any given shot, but that it provided the perfect conditions for feedback.
What does that mean? Consider the situation when my technique was variable: it was virtually impossible to identify what had gone wrong when I made an error. Was it because of the backswing, my opponent’s spin, the height of the ball? My stroke varied so much from shot to shot, it was impossible to pin down what had gone awry on any one of them. Feedback, to use the jargon, was corrupted by “biomechanical noise.”
By creating a perfectly reproducible stroke, I was able to instantly identify what had gone wrong when I made a mistake, leading to automatic refinement and readjustment. Within months the accuracy and consistency of my forehand had been transformed, with the number of strokes I could hit in a row escalating from fifteen to more than two hundred. That is the power of feedback. As Chen says: “If you don’t know what you are doing wrong, you can never know what you are doing right.”
Feedback is, in effect, the rocket fuel that propels the acquisition of knowledge, and without it no amount of practice is going to get you there.
Only when my forehand slice was perfectly reproducible did Chen allow me to make variations to introduce new spins and speeds. But guess what? Every variation – each of which looked to the outsider creative and spontaneous – was also honed through hours of practice so as to be perfectly reproducible, providing noiseless feedback.
[If, by this point, you’re wondering why I’m writing about table tennis, then I implore you to stick with me!]
To my eyes, and filtered/shaped through the lens of my own experiences, that passage contains many valuable elements that are applicable to realms well beyond the world of competitive table tennis.
It touches on the conditions for and the importance of useful feedback. A benefit of having a perfectly repeatable system/execution is that it allows us to gain feedback that can shape both our micro activities (e.g., to diagnose issues and course-correct in real-time) and macro (e.g., to let us continually refine processes to become even more effective).
Without that same repeatability and consistency, we’re left scratching our heads about what’s going wrong, and as a result we can neither take informed action mid-process nor can we perform the aggregate analysis that lets us improve how we do things in general.
As Syed says, without feedback, “it was virtually impossible to identify what had gone wrong when I made an error.”
With feedback, Syed was, “able to instantly identify what had gone wrong when (he) made a mistake, leading to automatic refinement and readjustment.”
Wouldn’t we all love to be able to identify and rectify, immediately, any problems with our go-to-market strategies, product launch plans, communications campaigns, lead generation initiatives, etc.? Well, a repeatable process is the key.
And – while not explicitly mentioned – we can assume that Syed’s new slice stroke is biomechanically efficient. That efficiency affords him certain benefits in competition, just as efficiency is beneficial to many (all?) activities.
In the working world, we have finite resources for seemingly infinite activities. The more repeatable our execution, the fewer mistakes we’ll make; plus, the more efficient our execution, the more things we can execute and the more energy we have for those activities or aspects that need creativity. For instance, maybe one stage in a process to launch a new product focuses on messaging and imagery – you want to have some creativity here (informed by market research!), but it’s creativity within a straightforward and repeatable framework.
In Syed’s case, he was only permitted to introduce creativity (and even then, it was a well-practiced variety), when he had all the fundamentals completely repeatable.
Without consistency and repeatability – and the well-defined processes that enable those characteristics – at worst we’re just making stuff up as we go, or at best we’re doing what we can to kind’ve closely mimic what we did last time around. In either scenario, we’re robbing ourselves of both the opportunity to gain vital feedback and of precious time.