Changemaking: Got Skills?

You might know what you’re doing, but do you have the means to put that knowledge into practice? Could the way you work be a means to know more about what it is you’re actually doing. And if you try to make a change and there’s no one there to see it or comment or provide any feedback, did you actually learn or do it? To answer these: you got to have skills.

Skills are the means to take what we know and convert that into what we do.

In this third in a series of posts on the fundamentals of behaviour change we look at skills and what they mean for change-making.

What Are Skills?

The term skill actually comes from the Norse and refers to the idea of discernment and distinction. Skills represent the ability to do something, do it well, and most often is something that requires training, teaching or reflective practice to achieve. Skills are also focused on some sort of goal or achievement.

There are no generic change skills, rather the skills for innovation and change are focused on general skills, specific ones tied to a job to be done, and metaskills. The last of these are what separate great designers from mediocre ones.

General skills are those that transfer to a variety of situations and circumstances and bring things together like listening, good communication, or being able to draw or illustrate.

Specific skills are particular to a job such as fixing an air conditioner. Although there are aspects of these specific skills that might benefit other uses, these are more likely focused on a specific problem, situation, or technology and are less transferrable than general skills.

The last cluster are metaskills, which are skills that amplify and support the others. For example, consider training to become an architect, for example, involve skills in planning, visualizing, and production. You need to be able to, to create buildings and structures and environments. It also requires an ability to work with people to help learn about their needs, desires and to be able to collaborate with them. It means being a strong communicator.

As architect Dami Lee discusses, these are typically not the skills that are commonly taught in school.

These metaskills are vital to the work and, as Marty Neumeier writes, essential to product design and innovation.

And yet strangely architects and designers are often not explicitly taught or supported in developing these metaskills.

Putting In The Time

Now you might have heard of the concept of the 10,000 hours rule, and that was made popular by journalist Malcolm Gladwell.

But as journalists often do Gladwell was taking existing research and oversimplifying it. The idea that one can put in 10,000 hours worth of effort and then become an exceptional talent in their chosen field, whether it’s music, sports, or any other type of profession is a bit misleading. Gladwell’s work was based on research done by psychologist, Anders Ericsson.

And what Ericsson found was it wasn’t just the time it was deliberative practice time. People who pay attention to the work they do and tasks they perform while also taking in feedback were the ones that learned the most and performed at the highest level. Feedback and its provision is where the role of coaches, trainers, teachers, and colleagues comes in.

Exceptionally talented individuals develop skills because they pay attention and they received the feedback that allow them to learn as they go. As Ericsson found, sometimes this took as little as 7,000 hours to become an expert in a particular areas and sometimes it took more than 10,000.

Gladwell simply rounded things together into a nice, neat number. The key here again is that with attention, persistence, feedback and repetition,

We can become very good at what we set our mind to. The mistakes that people can make is not putting in the right kind of work or time – they just simply go through the motions.

The Role of Evaluation in Skill Development

Fantastic artists, innovative, creative. All succeed because they were able to get feedback – this is why evaluation is so important to innovation.

Exceptional athletes, artists, and professionals in a variety of fields get good because of the feedback they receive from mentors, trainers, coaches, and peers. Even when at the top of their game, the best in their field continue to seek out and use feedback –– evaluation — to grow and sustain their performance. Innovation is truly about learning. And the only way you learn is by getting some type of feedback on the skills you’re developing and your application of those skills in practice.

Skill Excellence: An Example

James Donison is a veteran photographer, videographer and digital media professional based in Australia. He is skilled in the sense that he knows how to use camera, equipment, sound equipment and edit all of the material he generates. Most of this he learned in school or through work over time. In his field, these are technical skills — specific ones — that nearly every professional has to some degree. These skills are straightforward (not always easy, mind you) and can be developed with time, care and attention.

But what makes James’ work exceptional isn’t just these skills, it’s how he brings in general and metaskills. The general skills he uses – which, unlike their name are not generic or commonly held — are creative. He sees, hears, and senses things and then generates ideas that he is able to leverage with his technical skills to apply. In other words, it’s his creative skills which make the best use of his technical skills. These are the ability to take what he knows about how to use this equipment and transform that into a vision.

But that’s still not enough to be the very best. One thing that separates James from others even further is that he has strong metaskills tied to his work. These are tied to how he uses his personality, his perceptive abilities, his listening skills, and his ability to communicate ideas (and hear those of others). That’s what makes him so beloved by his clients and peers. It’s what’s allowed him to venture out into new areas and see opportunities in technologies like drone photography and now podcasting with his show Reaching for the Middle.


What can we learn from all of this?

One things is, is that if you’re going to develop the skills to be a change-maker, to innovate, you need to know what the jobs are to be done.You need to know the specific skill sets that require you to accomplish something and be frank in your assessment of whether you have them or whether you’re able to bring them in to the enterprise.

Number two, you need to create feedback channels and feedback loops. So this means enlisting other people to help you out and getting good coaching, good support, engaging your peers and finding ways to generate feedback in your practice on a consistent basis.

Lastly: pay attention to what you’re doing. It gets easy to just go through the motions, particularly when you’re talking about thousands of hours. But if you want to get very good at a skill, recognize that the more you pay attention to what you’re doing and learn from it, the better you will get and the faster you will get better. All of these help us to hone the skills we need to do something.

For more about skills and development check out the latest episode of Censemaking: The Innovation Podcast. (listen and subscribe below).

For more information about James Donison and his work visit him at

Photo by SUNBEAM PHOTOGRAPHY on Unsplash

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: