I work with many leaders who declare an intention to make sweeping changes in their lives, and want to do so virtually overnight. I love the enthusiasm for growth and development – yet my belief is that meaningful and sustainable change and development take time and are created by making tiny shifts over time. Patience and a mindset for continuous improvement are necessary to grow and develop as leaders, and as humans.
“If you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more.”
– James Clear
This thinking is similar to compounding interest, where the small deposits reinvested over time can create meaningful wealth. You won’t get rich over your first month of interest, but you can with time. Likewise, making small improvements and wise decisions in your work and life every day – consistently over time – can lead to far-reaching results. This approach is incremental and requires discipline, commitment, patience, and strategic thinking.
How Do You Get 1% Better Every Day?
There are many ways to begin the journey toward incremental and continuous improvement in your leadership and behavior. You can reflect at a particular cadence, which I discuss in detail in this article. You can also reflect in an ongoing pursuit to improve a specific aspect of your leadership or when learning something new.
For example, let’s say you have a goal to increase your confidence. Consider trying various small tactics – one at a time – to improve your confidence, reflecting on how those improvements helped or didn’t along the way, and then iterating from there.
Kolb’s Learning Model
I want to introduce an adult learning model that applies to the continuous improvement mindset. It’s called the Kolb Experiential Learning Model (Kolb, 1984). The model is cyclical in nature and begins with having a concrete experience (feeling stage), moves into the stage of reviewing or reflective observation (watching stage), then moves into abstract conceptualization where you consider improvements to your process (thinking stage), and completes with active experimentation where you try to do something new and different (doing stage). The cycle can repeat for continuous improvement and learning to occur.
Photo Credit: www.simplypsychology.org
This approach is a form of coaching yourself and is much like how a yoga teacher gives you an adjustment and then asks you, “How does this feel now?” in an effort to improve a posture or form mid-yoga class. Or how a theatre director may watch a rehearsal and suggest you try a different character, pace, or emotional approach to improve your performance, and then watch again with the suggestion in motion to find out if it was, indeed, an improvement. Personal trainers, athletic coaches, dance teachers, and executive coaches often take similar approaches to helping students, athletes, and clients learn and improve. You can borrow their strategies to coach yourself to improve on any given project or behavior.
This way of reflecting uses a design-thinking approach. In design-thinking methodology, there are five stages that help you understand and define a problem and experiment with creative solutions. The five stages, which do not necessarily need to be completed in order, are:
- Empathize: Try to understand your target audience’s needs. In the case of self-reflection, try to understand your own gaps more closely by asking yourself relevant questions and asking others to reflect on opportunities for you to improve.
- Define: This stage is all about articulating your goal, need, or challenge.
- Ideate: This step is about brainstorming and exploring a multitude of ideas to help you solve the problem. For example, when trying to improve your public speaking capabilitites, you might brainstorm an assortment of movements, inflections, expressions, strategic pauses, or visuals to incorporate.
- Prototype: Decide which improvements or solutions you plan to try.
- Test: Try them out and reflect on how they go.
Case Study: Continuous Improvement in Public Speaking
I have a client, we can call her Denise, who had a goal of increasing her executive presence and public speaking skills. She frequently presents in high-level Board meetings, all-staff meetings, and she often gives keynote presentations at large conferences. Even with her experience, she never felt like she was speaking eloquently or comfortably. Denise wanted to leave the spotlight feeling confident about her presentations, but she could not pinpoint what was missing for her.
We decided that she was going to record all of her presentations, and then she would watch them back to see what she could be doing better. She would give a presentation, record it, and watch it back so she could reflect, consider, and take notes on what she could improve upon next time. She then took what she learned and tried out a slightly different approach – each time she presented.
Little by little, she trialed tiny shifts in how she presented, what she focused on, her visuals, and her body language. By the end of six months, she was cruising through keynotes in front of thousands and didn’t even feel nervous before a TV appearance.
A note of caution: Be mindful not to over critique yourself. No one is perfect and that should not be your goal. If you find yourself being overly critical or nitpicking over details that do not matter, that is also something to look at.
Both the Kolb learning model and design-thinking methodology support an experimentation and continuous improvement mindset, where you are open to trying out various ideas – many of which will fail to succeed – in an effort to find incremental improvements along the way. They both offer an iterative approach where active reflection is baked into any process, project, or goal in an effort to improve incrementally over time.
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