How To Improve Through Motivation, Skills, and Feedback



“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill

As a mentor put it to me a long time ago, “without the skills, you’re a motivated idiot.”

His point was simple: motivation + skills = results.

Is it a Motivation or Ability Issue?

Whenever I need to improve myself or help somebody with a change,  I first figure out whether it’s a motivation or a skills issue.   Interestingly, many times a motivation issue is a skills issue in disguise.

I also use this motivation and skills lens to evaluate any advice.  Is the advice offering any actionable insight, skills, and techniques … or just motivation and inspiration … or both?

This simple frame helps me cut to the chase to get to what I need and ignore the rest.

The Motivation, Skills, and Feedback Framework

While I was giving a talk to our Microsoft Learning and Development group, I drew a very simple table on the whiteboard.

It included motivation, skills, and feedback.

I referred to this as the Motivation, Skills, and Feedback framework:

Category Questions
  • Do you have any heroes or roles models that inspire you here?
  • Do you have a compelling reason that you believe in?
  • How important is this in your grand scheme of things?
  • Is there a way you can enjoy the process?
  • Is there a way you can link this to good feelings?
  • Do you have 3 models of success to learn from?
  • Is there a mentor or coach that can show you the short-cuts and proven practices?
  • Do you know the proven practices for getting results here?
  • Is there a way to setup an experiment to test your results?
  • Is there a routine you can use for deliberate practice?
  • Do you know how to measure effectiveness?
  • Do you know the tests for success and what good looks like?
  • Are you getting timely, relevant, actionable feedback?
  • Is there anybody who can give you more effective feedback?

As you can see, this frame organizes some cutting questions.  It helps you get clarity on where the issue is.

How Motivation + Skills + Feedback = Effective Results

If you have the skills, but lack the motivation, you won’t accomplish much. If you have the motivation, but lack the skills, you’ll spin your wheels.

Ultimately, you need the right blend of motivation, skills and feedback for effective results.

The key here is that effective feedback is your ticket out of  ineffective loops.

This frame is time-tested and I’ve used it countless times to improve personal, team, and organization results.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way … but it’s faster, easier, and simpler when you have the right skills, too.

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  1. Hey J.D.

    I like it how motivation, skills and feedback create a sort of formula for success. Motivation gets you the drive and direction, skills give you the possibility to perform and feedback the ability to learn and adapt. Now that I think about it, most people I know goof up with at least one of these 3 points. Hmm, this explains a lot 🙂

  2. @ Eduard — I enjoy fleshing out the skills space, since you can never be too skilled for life. I collect patterns and practices for communication, emotional intelligence, thinking … etc. It’s handy when I can quickly use these tools myself or share with a friend. For example, “empathic listening” is often a game changer.

    @ Fred — Feedback loops are key. For online business, BI plays a key role, and for personal effectiveness, sounding boards, mentors, and coaches play a key role. Thank you.

  3. Ok, so this might seem wrong but this is my new favorite phrase:
    “without the skills, you’re a motivated idiot.”

    I’d like to think that I have a good balance of both. I strive to never stop learning and I try and keep the people around me that are going to remain a positive influence towards my goals.

  4. @ Ricardo — Some things really stick, and that phrase is sure one of them. When I catch myself flailing, I have to ask, “What’s the smarter way?” I’ve been in the “proven practices” business for a long time, and my key lesson learned is that there’s always somebody, somewhere in the world, that knows a better way. I just need to know where to look. It’s a fun hunt and I like bridging the gap between the state of the art and the state of the practice.

  5. JD –

    This is pithy and effective stuff. As a coach I had to chuckle at the motivation / skills breakdown. So many people get stuck on motivation as an excuse for not having the skills. I appreciate the questions you outlined for your team – they do help to find a way past almost any challenge by diagnosing the root cause. For me, learning to get motivated for any challenge is a skill in itself. Once we develop the ability to self-motivate that sustainable tool can carry past almost any goal we set. Thanks for a great article JD – you are on a roll at the moment.


  6. JD
    great tips – thanks!
    I see clearly how I adapt skill-motivation-feedback to the agile world. small bucketssteps of this routine will help you to learn a lot and to increase your motivation over time

  7. Hi J.D! ..A most useful post! Americans have a saying :There are two important things in life: Reasons and Results.In the bottom line,Results is the only thing that counts.But of course one can never reach this stage,without motivation and skills. Last year in your post
    ‘Thinking on thinking’,you made a clear cut on skills with your example
    about the bar fighter and the boxer. In our scientific circles a funny joke was circulating:Scientific research,is a research,where the costs were real and the results imaginary. Considering the Frame,you are advocating, one can specify in skills: at least three models to learn from (as Confucius taught). Somehow emotional intelligence is not specified clearly : it has to be consciously developed,to build on its impact and balanced – since In and Yang are not always in the acceptable proportion. Lastly,if an individual does no receive an appropriate education in the family, it will be much tougher for him to catch on and qualify for something more significant.

  8. @ Phil — You’re right — finding the motivation for any challenge really is a skill. Whenever I get stuck, I remind myself I can change the *why* or change the *how.* Either way can work like a champ. Thank you.

    @ Dror — Agile is a perfect reflection — little loops and lots of learning 😉

    @ Michael — Reason and Results is catchy and precise! Emotional intelligence really is a hot spot for building skills and incredibly important. I plan to cover this in more detail in the future. Thank you.

  9. J.D. This post was right on time. Often I write about finding the motivation to press through some of the more difficult aspects of life but I have never approached it from this direction. Not only is it important to have inspiration but you also need skills to support the effort and valid feedback to see if you are even on the right course. Thanks for sharing.

  10. @ Frank — Sometimes heroic effort is a good thing, but I’m finding that having a sustainable pace by connecting to values and leveraging skills wins in the long run. Thank you.

  11. Hi JD … ongoing learning is so important – while putting what you learn into practise, so you can unlearn and relearn where necessary .. while you must also start.

    Thanks – Hilary

  12. Hi JD
    How refreshing to find a post that talks about motivation in combination with skills.
    It reminds me of the quote…

    “Everyone has the will to win; what is important is the will to prepare.”

    Surely part of that preparation has to be acquiring the necessary skills.
    Sometimes it not all in the mind.

  13. @ Hilary — I’m a lifelong learner by design — it got grilled into me long ago that failure is not an option, so the only way I know to succeed is keep moving forward and learn along the way. There’s no failure until you give up 🙂

    @ Keith — I like that quote — and it goes hand-in-hand with “chance favors the prepared mind.” Thank you.

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