Our work day is made up of three main types of work: technical, operational, and social.
Technical are the things you do that are specific to your job.
Coding if you are a developer, making journal entries if you are an accountant, writing marketing copy if you are in marketing. Generally, it is specialized knowledge that you’ve been trained in and that you were hired for.
Operational work is the surrounding things that we all have to do to support our work.
Filling out HR paperwork, giving your manager a status update, a scrum meeting if you are a developer, updating the CRM with your activities if you are in sales. Operational work brings together all of the different technical specialties into a cohesive organization.
And Social – which is the hardest, is the way we interact with each other. It is the culture that is created by each person’s interactions with another person.
As you go through each day at work, you perform all three of these types of work.
Types of Skills
All three of these types of work are made up of hard skills and soft skills. It is important that you understand the differences between these types of skills and the methods for developing both.
Daniel Coyle does a really good job of defining this in his book “The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving your skills.” I recommend this book – it is short, easy to read, and contains a lot of great tips.
When you think about the three types of work: Technical, operational, and social, it would be easy to think that hard skills are for technical and operational and soft skills are for social. But, the reality is that all three types of work use both types of skill. Maybe not with the same velocity, but there is no mutual exclusivity here.
Soft skills and hard skills use different parts of our brain. Even before we had the science to back this up, we knew it. Right brain vs. left brain is something we all understand, even if we aren’t brain scientists.
The important take away here is that when you are working on developing a skill, there are different strategies for learning hard skills and soft skills.
Strategies for Hard Skills
Hard skills need to be performed consistently with each repetition.
There is one right answer with hard skills. You either did or you didn’t.
There is one path to the right result.
These kinds of skills are best developed by focusing on the fundamentals. You learn them by repeating them over and over until they are mastered.
It is best to learn hard skills one step at a time. Go slow, learn a part, master that part, and then go to the next part.
Athletes are notorious for this. How many times do you think a goalie has a ball kicked at him? You can see the training program they go through when you watch a game. When a goalie has a pretty simple save – the ball is basically kicked right into their open arms – they will still drop to the ground and cover the ball with their body to protect it. Not because there is a threat in that moment, but because their training has taught them to do this for those situations where there is a threat.
In business we have our own hard skills specific to our job.
Think about the things you do repetitively and with precision in order to accomplish your job. The next time you perform the action, look at it piece by piece – step by step. What one thing could you do to improve it? Where do errors occur? Spend time – a lot of time – focused in on that error and figure out what you need to do to eliminate that error.
Strategies for Soft Skills
Soft skills are less specialized.
They require you to make choices and recognize patterns.
I did an episode about building your skill at recognizing patterns if you’d like to learn more – Episode 30, Decision Primed Recognition Framework.
Whereas hard skills are all about consistency, soft skills are all about agility.
There is no single way to the right answer for soft skills.
For soft skills, you need to practice with a lot of different scenarios. By encountering different scenarios, you learn to notice patters and build a set of responses based on those patterns. The model is called Decision Primed Recognition Framework, and it really comes down to having the institution to make the right decision given the circumstances.
If we go back to our goalie – falling to his knees and covering the ball with his body is a hard skill. Knowing whether to jump left or right to block the penalty kick is a soft skill. He is doing this based on his experience with patterns in the field. His intuition kicks in.
Soft skills are needed in ever-changing environments.
The soccer pitch is ever-changing. But so is the meeting room. Or the customer Support call. Or the sales pitch. Each meeting you go into will be different.
Learning to read the room is a soft skill that is built by noticing patterns, trying something in response, and learning from the outcome.
In building skills, I love this quote from Daniel Coyle: “take mistakes seriously, but never personally.”
As you go through your week – notice which types of skills you are executing as you perform different aspects of your job. Notice whether what you are doing is a hard skill or a soft skill. And then use the strategies above to focus on improvement.
You’ll make more progress by matching up the skill with the right type of activity for improvement.
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