How much practice is needed to master a complex skill?

Most managers that green-light training want participants to learn the skills as soon as possible. This is understandable, as one way we evaluate a training investment is by how fast people learn. We want the investment to not only pay, we also want to realise the benefits that we hoped for as soon as possible. Are we, however, sometimes expecting too much learning too quickly? Might we even sabotage the process by overwhelming staff – leading to worse outcomes had we taken it slow?

Complex skills, like a sales process, require practice. Practice, requires time. In psychology, we use a learning acquisition model known as “The Four Stages of Competence”. So, how long does it take to learn and master a new complex skill?

The Four Stages of Competence

Unconscious incompetence – The Novice

When novices first arrive at a training event to learn a new skill, they don’t yet know what they don’t know. Novices are unaware that skills and knowledge exists that differs from their experience because no one has alerted them to that deficit. They might respond to the very prospect of training by asking the question: “Oh, is there another way to do this?”

Sometimes, novices might even be aware of a general lack of knowledge or skill, yet might not value the usefulness of the skill that they lack. In other words, they might be thinking, “I am doing it, so whatever I lack must not be important.”

Before learning a new skill, novices must recognise their incompetence and the value of the new skill, before moving to the next stage.

It’s important to recognise that being a novice does not depend on the number of years in a role or performing a task. You might have people who have been in a job for years without knowing what they don’t know. How long a novice stays unconsciously incompetent depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn. The stimulus can be provided in the first training session.

Stimuli might range from incentives to learning the new process like prizes, or celebrations, or public acknowledgement of successes (all of which might happen during training) to quizzes, evaluations, and performance reviews (all of which can happen shortly following training).

Conscious incompetence – The Apprentice

Apprentices are aware they do not understand or know how to do something. They recognise the deficits are significant and valuable. They make frequent mistakes as they learn the new skill. This is natural, and even beneficial, to the learning process at this stage, as the learner refines new skills by practicing in an observed environment.

Apprentices benefit from close supervision, frequent evaluation, consistent accountability reviews and emotional support. Managers and supervisors can help by participating in the apprentices learning process – by supervising them closely, observing them perform skills in real life situations, giving candid and consistent feedback, and being supportive when mistakes and backslides occur.

This is the level at which the Apprentice’s respect for the learned skill grows significantly. They now realise that they have a lot to learn, and see the need to quickly learn these skills.

Apprentices tend to experience the most stress, because they now realise they have a mountain of skills to learn. They often become frustrated with mistakes, leading to a momentary lack of confidence, which sometimes occurs at the end of a training event.

Apprenticeship, however, continues well beyond the end of training, until such time the apprentice performs at the desired level of competence.

Conscious competence – The Journey Level

Journeypeople understand and know how to do something to a specific quality standard (e.g. 90% adherence to a sales process). They can show the skill or knowledge, but they need to concentrate and make a sustained effort to do so routinely.

People at this stage find themselves tired after routinely implementing the skill. Yet, they feel better about the skill as their confidence grows. They involve a lot of conscious effort in executing the skill and the frequency of their mistakes declines.

The Journeyperson experiences good days and bad days. Cyclical patterns of success and failure emerge. Still, we see progress, and begin to see the fruit of the labours in the results Journeypeople produce.

It’s important that managers and supervisors recognise that the journey is not yet over, by remaining consistent with their supervision, evaluation, reviews, and support. What I find, is that the need for support begins to decrease, as long as you continue to address the first three needs.

Now is the time for tailored feedback during personal accountability sessions. Journeypeople can now spot their errors with more accuracy, and can begin to hone these deficits with greater effect.

People can stay at consistently increasing conscious competence for weeks, months, or even years, depending on the complexity of the skill, how often they practice it, and the variety of the circumstances in which they practice it.

Unconscious competence – The Master

With any complex skill, our goal is mastery – the point at which performing the skill feels like a natural ability. Masters do not really need to think about what they are doing. The skill becomes “second nature”. While errors can still happen, their frequency is very low.

At the stage, the Master has practiced a great deal (Malcolm Gladwell argues in Outliers that it takes “10,000 hours” of practice to become a world-class master at any given set of complex skills).

If you performed a complex skill every day for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year; 10,000 hours requires just over 5 years of focused practice. Therefore, it’s unlikely that someone with less than 5 years of experience, performing a complex skill every single hour of every single work day will have achieved true world-class mastery.

One mark of a master is the ability to do other tasks while carrying out the primary skill at a near perfect level (e.g. teaching the skill while performing it) because the skill isn’t requiring much of the Master’s conscious thought.

Are Masters world-class teachers by default? No. After mastering a skill, teaching it might take another five years of practice before they can call themselves world-class teachers of a specific complex skill.

Once a master, are you a master for life? Not necessarily. Mastery requires regular practice to stay sharp. Without regular practice, errors creep in, and a Master can slip into the Journey level easily. Refreshers are important. Regularly performing the skill is important (not just talking or writing about it).

NOTE: The best way to answer that nagging question about practice growth or marketing or patient volume in the back of your mind is to book a free 15-minute compatibility call. Get some options and go away with a clear idea of what’s possible.

About the author

Rod Solar
Founder & Scalable Business Advisor / fCMO

Rod Solar is a co-founder of LiveseySolar and a Scalable Business Advisor for its customers. Rod mentors and coaches eye surgery business CEOs/Founders and their leadership teams to triple their sales, double their profit, and achieve their “ideal exit”.

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Rod Solar

Founder & Scalable Business Advisor

Rod Solar is a co-founder of LiveseySolar and a Scalable Business Advisor / fCMO for our customers. Rod mentors and coaches CEOs/Founders and their leadership teams to double their sales, triple their profits, and achieve their “ideal exit”.

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LiveseySolar completely transformed the way we were approaching this… We’ve gone from having just the dream of having a practice to having a practice up and running with people making inquiries and booking for procedures… It’s extremely pleasing. We feel lucky we connected with LiveseySolar.

— Dr Matthew Russell, MBChB, FRANZCO, specialist ophthalmic surgeon and founder of VSON and OKKO

Laura Livesey

Founder & CEO

Laura Livesey is the co-founder & CEO of LiveseySolar. She has developed powerful refractive surgery marketing systems that increase patient volumes and profits for doctors, clinics, and hospitals, since 1997.

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Rod and Laura know as much about marketing surgery to patients as I know about performing it. They are an expert in the field of laser eye surgery marketing. They know this industry inside out. I believe that they could help many companies in a variety of areas including marketing materials, sales training and marketing support for doctors.

— Prof. Dan Reinstein, MD MA FRSC DABO, founder of the London Vision Clinic, UK