Today’s post is the featured article from the February 2013 issue of The Front Porch Newsletter. If you would like to automatically receive The Front Porch e-newsletter on the last Thursday of each month just click here to sign-up for your complimentary subscription

john-newMaybe there is some truth to practice-makes-perfect. Or at least it makes it better. It certainly rings true when it comes to core values. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, noted that we master a skill after 10,000 hours of practicing the skill.

Core values take practice.

Core values are not a skill. They are much deeper and richer than a skill. Skills are what we do. Core values are who we are. Our core values have the potential to transform our entire individual experience … and our collective experience in an organization.

But it doesn’t happen just because we consider ourselves value-based. And it doesn’t happen just because we sit in a room and brainstorm a list (either individually for our own life … or as the leadership team of an organization). It doesn’t happen because we put them in our day-planner, or in Outlook, or frame them on a wall.

It happens because we practice.

Core values only become realized through intentional practice. And it would appear that it takes a lot of practice! Some research would say we develop a new habit after 21 days of continually repeating the motions of the desired habit. If that were the case, then core values could actually be the “flavor-of-the-month” and it would have sticking power. In fact, we would have an extra 9 days of additional assurance that the habit would be formed.

We could only wish it was so easy. Core values are not habits. But ultimately they do drive action. Once our values are clear we can begin to brainstorm what they look like in action in our current situation … at work, at home and in our community. Our core values are not designed to change from one arena to another arena in our life. We only get one core … and it goes with us everywhere we go. Each arena, however, gives us a chance to express our core values in a unique way. Once our core values come into focus, it becomes important for us to creatively think about what those values might look like in action. Once we can picture the action, then we have a template on which to begin to practice. It is unlikely that we will immediately get it right.

That is why it is called practice.

That is why actors and athletes and musicians all practice … so they can get it right for when it really counts. In a conversation with Jerry Poras (coauthor with Jim Collins on Built to Last) I think he appropriately pointed out that we really know our core values when we come to a decision point in a crisis or very difficult situation … and up to that point it is simply a theory. I immediately agreed but then added … I just think that moment is a horrible time to figure out what those core values are. He agreed!

We practice day-in and day-out for that moment.

In the meantime, as we practice, core values begin to transform our day-to-day actions … and the transformation of our day-to-day actions begins to transform who we are. In turn, thousands of amazing simple moments are created along the way. It is the collective nature of these individual moments that begin to transform the culture of an organization.

Each moment becomes the practice … the practice for a major moment. The practice for that major crisis … which ultimately, from a values perspective, becomes no crisis at all. It is just another moment. There is no difficult decision … for our well-practiced values clarify the decision for us.

Practice is rarely glamorous. But it is necessary.

I am sure, however, that any actor, any athlete, or any musician will tell you there have been some magical moments they have experienced “in practice.” It is where relationships are built and break-throughs are realized.

It is this concept of “practice” that might well explain why most organizational core value initiatives never take-hold. Or why they become a passing flavor-of-the-month. It does no good to name something that you aren’t committed to persistently practice. This starts with the highest levels of leadership and permeates throughout the organization.

Practice may not make perfect … but it sure goes a long way in creating a “value-able” experience. Core values do create value when they are practiced. This is a “no-cut” sport … for those willing to practice. For those who are not … they eliminate themselves from what is possible. Let your practice begin! If, at first, you drop the ball … just pick it up. Have patience with yourself. It’s only the first hour. We have plenty of time … in fact, another 9,999 hours to go before you will likely master it! And it is there where your persistence will make the difference.