Balancing learning and performance

Browsing the in-flight entertainment on a recent trip, I came across a TED talk by Eduardo Briceno, “How to get better at the things you care about”. It highlighted a challenge I see facing leaders in retail and consumer goods.

Why do I say that? 

Briceno contends that in most areas of our lives, we gradually stop getting better at things. The reason is that most of us go through life doing things in what Briceno calls the “performance zone” - we try to do the best we can and minimise our mistakes. In the performance zone, we focus on execution and our immediate performance. It’s a situation we can probably all relate to and is backed up by studies showing that people in professions often find their performance plateaus two years after starting a new role.

Briceno states that the most effective people and teams go through life deliberately alternating between two zones: the “learning zone” and the “performance zone”. In the “learning zone”, our goal is to improve and build capability for the future. An example would be an athlete who practices drills that are tough to master and makes frequent mistakes (the learning zone) with the aim of improving their performance when they compete (the performance zone).

For high performance in any domain, we need to flex our time between the learning zone and the performance zone. Our tendency, however, is to put the majority of our energy into the performance zone thereby hindering our long-term growth.


We can helpfully apply Briceno’s distinction to the world of retail and consumer goods. I frequently hear organisations and leaders talk with pride about their execution-focused cultures. We reward flawless execution and reinforce time spent in the performance zone. Our organisational performance review systems place a high emphasis on performing versus learning. What this does, perhaps unintentionally, is to encourage individuals and teams to stay with what they know rather than to innovate and improve.

This focus on execution may be fine when the business environment is stable. However, when the context is changing rapidly, as it has been in retail and consumer goods for the past decade, learning new capabilities and adapting existing approaches – and, yes, making mistakes - is precisely where we need to spend a substantial share of our time.

Of course, this is easier said than done. When situations are high stakes, it makes sense to focus on the performance zone and minimise errors. No one wants to be operated on by a surgeon who is in the learning zone. But we have a tendency to behave as if we are only in a high stakes situation: many businesses under pressure default to the performance zone - trying to survive by doing the best job possible at what they already know – and thereby hinder their ability to grow and adapt. There is a big opportunity for businesses to think more strategically about how they divide their time between the learning and performance zones, and for leaders to role model their own inclination to step into the learning zone.

I see this in last-mile fulfilment and logistics where there is a need for retailers to build a strong capability for the future. This is an area where leaders can be open about their need to learn and demonstrate their willingness to do so. Some practical steps could be working alongside the teams in these new areas to understand the challenges they face, rewarding experimentation, accepting mistakes and encouraging people to ask questions and reflect on experience.

It may not be our natural approach as leaders to look like we’re in the learning zone. However, when the environment is changing fast and there are new capabilities to master, it is critical that we switch in a visible way between learning and performance.