Being part of a profession where making mistakes often leads to the death of people, excellence in tactical and operational art is paramount. However, we are often hampered by bureaucracy and a busy schedule that does not leave much time for skill development.
Another problem is that even if we find the time to dedicate to practice, we often don’t know how to use it well. We all know people, maybe the great majority of people we know, that have practiced a certain skill for a long time, be it something artistic like drawing or athletic like basketball, but who just don’t seem to be improving.
In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin talks about this phenomenon and how to overcome it. He identifies not experience and not talent, but something called deliberate practice as the root cause of some people’s mastery of any given skill.
What is Deliberate Practice
Deliberate practice is a method of practicing that is aimed at maximizing skill development. It is a method that many of the greatest artists, athletes, and scientists have intuitively used in their journey to reach mastery. It is often at the core of a master’s habits.
In order to do deliberate practice right five elements have to be in place:
- Deliberate practice is specifically designed to improve performance. The word designed is key here. It means that someone knowledgeable has made an effort to create a program specifically to improve a skill at a certain level. This can be the practitioner himself, who sits down, puts a lot of thought into it and in the end, designs a program specifically aimed at themselves. However, there often is an established body of knowledge on how to teach the skills needed in a given field. A mentor or teacher can help in finding, designing, or customizing such a program.
- It can be repeated a lot. In order for real improvement to happen, a program or exercise has to be repeatable, otherwise, it won’t give enough practice to lead to improvement.
- Feedback on results is continuously available. It is paramount to know what you are doing correctly and what needs further improvement. Practicing wrongly over and over again will lead to great skill at how to do something the wrong way.
- It is highly demanding mentally. Deliberate practice does not work on autopilot. One has to continuously think about what is being done right now. You have to live in the moment! Since the skill being practiced is practiced at the edge of one’s ability, it is not possible to go on autopilot. In fact, being on autopilot is a surefire sign that you are not practicing deliberately!
- It isn’t much fun. By forcing us to practice right at the edge of our abilities and being highly demanding mentally, deliberate practice is challenging. It forces us out of our comfort zone and puts us right in our learning zone where real improvement happens. However, many enjoy being challenged like that, especially high performers (this seems to be one of the reasons they can sustain being challenged like that for long periods), so fun is relative.
Deliberate Practice and Tactical & Operational Excellence
How can we, as military professionals, apply this knowledge in order to improve our performance of tactical and operational art? One way to do it is the Prussian way: tactical decision games (TDGs, other names include sandbox exercises, tactical vignettes). TDGs are the easiest way to practice tactical and operational art, however, they do have certain prerequisites in order to be most effective. They require a mentor, or at least a group of peers be present in order to discuss and talk about the situation, the decisions made, and probable outcomes for each decision. Without some form of feedback from others, their effectiveness is hampered.
Traditionally, TDGs are done in a group setting and supervised by a teacher. The teacher, often a senior NCO or officer, gives guidance and provides moderation for a discussion. This, also known as the case method, is a powerful tool, as talking through the problem and having to consider other points of view, some of which one wouldn’t have thought of by themselves, often leads to improved understanding. However, it is not without its drawbacks, as I have written here. Results are still hypothetical and not clear-cut, which can lead to much discussion without agreement and a lack of understanding. Another problem is that there might be points that were not brought up by the participants or the teacher. Last but not least, students learn much better by experiencing a tactical situation themselves and being forced to make a decision in the face of uncertainty rather than merely reading about it. This is what James Lacey, an instructor at the Marine Corps War College, found out when he played Polis: Fight for the Hegemony for the first time with his class.
Wargames, on the other hand, are very powerful tools complementing TDGs. They provide immediate feedback, even when a teacher or mentor is not present. They can be combined with TDGs, each complementing the other. For example, such a session can begin by working through a TDG with a group of peers and presenting the results, the ensuing discussion providing all the benefits of the case method. Then, the decisions can be wargamed, either using a tabletop wargame like Advanced Squad Leader, Combat Commander, or one of the games of the Tactical Combat Series or using a computer wargame like Combat Mission: Black Sea. This way, likely results can be evaluated and grave tactical mistakes identified. For a selection of games that are suitable for deliberate practice, see my series on Wargaming and Learning.
The profession of arms is a peculiar one. You might practice it for a lifetime but never get the opportunity to use what you have practice. This would be akin to a surgeon who practices on mannequins his whole career but never gets to operate on a patient…until suddenly he has to.
It is even more important that we constantly improve in the only two skills that really matter: tactics and operations. Deliberate practice is the way to do so in the restricted environments that we operate in. And wargaming, coupled with the principles of deliberate practice can lead to much improvement.
For more on deliberate practice see:
- Talent is Overrated
- How to get better at the things you care about
- The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice
What are your thoughts on deliberate practice? How do you improve your tactical and operational skills? Share it in the comments!