Long ago, elite athletes determined that by augmenting their normal training regimen with activities pulled from other sports, they could improve performance in their own. Focusing on a limited set of movements and skills left them vulnerable to injury when something unexpected came along. By spending a portion of their workouts engaged in other sports, an athlete improves their overall strength and conditioning, providing a firmer foundation upon which to perform.
This is called cross-training. While it’s become standard practice in sports, it’s not quite as common in the business world. Too often, employees are pigeon-holed into silos of responsibility. In addition to leaving the team vulnerable to events like absences, revised deadlines, or surges in customer traffic, it leaves individual workers at a disadvantage. That’s because, like an athlete, we can improve performance in our core duties by engaging in a bit of cross-training. Cross-training flexes the mind just like it does any other muscle.
Cross-training provides variety. When we do the same things repeatedly, the brain starts to develop neural pathways that make it easier for us to get the job done. Actions become automatic and we do thing without even thinking about them. This muscle-memory can be useful. I don’t have to think about putting my seatbelt on each time I get in the car – it just happens. But when work becomes routine, our minds begin to wander. We disengage. We get bored.
When we tackle a different kind of work, we’re exposed to a different set of circumstances. We have new variables to consider and new decisions to make. Our brains start firing in new ways and we are forced to think, and act, in ways we otherwise wouldn’t have. Work becomes challenging and interesting. Cross-training keeps us from becoming bored.
Cross-training provides insight. Encased in the bubble of sameness presented by our siloed work environments, it’s hard to see the bigger picture. Our actions have ripple effects that we can’t see because our focus is so narrow. There are others working hard to solve problems we could help solve if we’d only look outside the bubble.
When we engage in work typically done by others, we start to connect the dots between our job and theirs. We begin to see relationships that expand our understanding of the organization’s mission. We learn to appreciate the struggles others face and the value they provide. We begin to understand the meaning of the word “team.” Cross-training keeps us from becoming isolated.
Cross-training provides perspective. When we do the same job day after day, we develop systems that become habits. Like a trail in the woods, a rut starts to form. Before long, the ruts become so deep that we adopt the edges as the boundaries of our ability. We can’t see any other way to get the job done because we’ve gotten comfortable living in the rut.
When we take on a new task, it’s like blazing a new trail. We see things differently because we must. There’s no established rut to follow. We’re free to ask questions and explore new ways of thinking. As we learn the what, why, and how of a new task, we start to question the boundaries of our own responsibilities. We start to see the ruts we’ve created from the outside. This new view helps us identify new and better ways of performing our own job. Cross-training keeps us from becoming short-sighted.
Cross-training has numerous benefits for the team. The flexibility of having multiple people capable of performing any given task is obvious. However, the greatest benefit may to the individual who steps up to try something new.
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