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Ability: The Intersection of Capacity & Practice


I’m a casual football fan. I never played (American) football growing up and I don’t play fantasy football, but I understand, appreciate and respect the game and the talent required to play at the NFL level. I’ve had the good fortune of living in cities in two different eras when players with rare abilities were playing. 


Growing up I lived in Detroit when Barry Sanders played for the Lions, and today I live in Kansas City and feel the hometown pride when watching Patrick Mahomes. Unlike the Chiefs, the Lions never won the Super Bowl during my time living in their city. Unfortunately, Sanders never had the complete package around him in the way that Mahomes does, which is likely what led to his “too early, in my opinion” exit from the game. 


For those who enjoy watching people excel at the highest levels of a particular discipline there's no denying that Barry Sanders did that and Patrick Mahomes is currently doing it. It’s fun to watch. No athlete is perfect, but that’s what humanizes and makes them somewhat relatable.


Physical talent, intelligence and drive are hallmarks for both of these players. Their abilities at their respective positions set them apart from their peers. This includes abilities as players, professionals, leaders and competitors. Ability is recognizable but can be elusive.


What is the Ability Intersection?

Ability is the intersection of capacity and practice (see Intersection 28 image below). Capacity without practice is wasted talent. Practice without capacity is fruitless effort. Whether in sport or business, we all have a capacity to perform. It’s the level of capacity within each of us that is different. 


The effort we put into practicing something shapes the capacity fulfillment we realize, which creates ability. Said differently, ability is the result of utilizing practice to maximize capacity. We measure ability in both subjective and objective terms depending on the task and its application.


Capacity

Capacity is the degree to which we can achieve an ability level, regardless of whether we’ve achieved it yet or not. Sometimes capacity is innate and other times it can be built (or even damaged). Another word used interchangeably with capacity is potential. In the case of ability, capacity is a more appropriate term because it leaves less to chance than the ambiguity in “potential”. 


My observation of capacity in a corporate setting is that it includes an element of balance. People have the capacity to learn and the capacity to deliver. An appropriate balance must be found to derive the most value from the person for the good of the organization. The same is true for each individual’s own development. The question becomes, how best do we build and use each person’s capacity?


Intersection 28: Ability = Capacity + Practice

Practice

Practice, in the ability equation, is as straightforward as it sounds. Doing something multiple times, adjusting when and where necessary, to get better at it. Practicing creates ability. Theoretically, the more someone practices something the better they get at it. While that may sound ideal, it would essentially take away the need for capacity and talent, since simple repetition would lead to mastery (or the perception of it). Practice for the sake of practicing, without an objective or capacity, is suboptimal.


Practice is not only a key component of ability; it is an ability itself. It requires knowledge, discipline, planning, diligence and intention. Whether it’s public speaking, computer programming, project management or leading a team, practice is necessary for success. In our professional lives, practice is largely done on the job, many times without the benefit of an environment where mistakes have no consequences. This is why practice is both a means to end and an end itself. 


What Can Leaders Do?

As leaders we talk a lot about ability. We’re required to rate or judge people in terms of their “ability”, which includes a broad set of attributes that contribute to their performance. 


The best leaders understand the balance capacity requires and look for ways to optimize it within their teams. Additionally, they explore ways to create environments in which practice is possible with minimal if any negative consequences. And even if not possible, good leaders create opportunities for their team members to practice and build ability, giving them the support they need to learn and grow, even when failure happens. 


Wrap Up & Up Next

At times, our roles can hinder the development and demonstration of our full abilities. The key is to be prepared to take advantage of opportunities to do both when they present themselves. 


Next time we’ll examine the 29th intersection of performance, which is the Effort Intersection.

In this series of articles, we explore The Intersections of Performance, of which there are 30. The Intersections of Performance framework is based on the experience and insights of Brett Simpson, Managing Director of Elevate Simply, over his 20+ years of leadership in large and small organizations, and as an entrepreneur, advisor and investor.

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