How to Master Complex, Unfamiliar Tasks

If you’re about to tackle a complex issue or task in an unfamiliar area, how should you prioritize your first steps? New research shows that you’ll be off to a better start if you focus on learning rather than results. This is especially true if the matter context is unpredictable or dynamic.Dr. Meredith Woodwark

I interviewed Dr. Meredith Woodwark – whose research uncovered these findings – to learn more. Woodwark teaches organizational behavior and leadership at the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research focuses on motivation, learning goals and employee engagement.

Q. How is your research relevant to professionals?

Professionals  – lawyers, accountants and others – are under constant pressure to perform by producing results. They also need to continually learn and adapt in order to keep performing over time on highly complex, dynamic tasks.

In this environment, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of continual learning and instead focus solely on performance outcomes. My research shows that when people retain a strong focus on learning they actually perform better on complex tasks than when they just focus on getting the work done to meet external objectives.

“Outcomes are better if individuals focus on the learning process rather than the end goal. Counterintuitive but true!”

For instance, a lawyer tackling a new issue or area of law that he/she has not yet mastered could improve the quality of the task outcome by one-third by focusing on learning how to complete the work to its best result, rather than only on achieving the best performance.

Q. Is this a more efficient way of performing in the long run?

Focusing on learning upfront tends to require more time initially, but it sets you up to be more effective at the task in the long run.

Q. How does this affect individual motivation and engagement with one’s work?

There isn’t a lot of research in this area yet, but we do know that people who set learning goals tend to be more committed to those goals than those who set performance goals. Learning goals have been shown to benefit entrepreneurial performance, for example. Also, some research suggests that people with learning goals have higher self-efficacy and satisfaction than those with performance goals.

Q. How does this challenge the way firms traditionally set performance goals?

Professional environments are particularly apt to emphasize performance goals – such as billable hours and business development- at the expense of learning or process goals that will support success on complex tasks over time.

If performance goals dominate firm culture, people will simply ignore any encouragement to focus on learning outcomes as well. This diminishes performance over time because we need to keep learning in order to adapt to changes in firm and industry contexts.

Professional environments that seek to support long term performance – including the ability to effectively adapt to change – should overemphasize learning goals compared to performance goals to produce the best results. This is opposite to what most firms currently do. Reversing the emphasis would also avoid the negative effects of goal overloading from simply adding on learning goals to existing performance goals.

Q. How could firms encourage better outcomes in both the skill-building and results-oriented performance arenas?

To send the message that learning truly matters, learning goals need to be specific and difficult to be taken seriously. Ensure that people clearly understand the level of skill and knowledge they are expected to acquire.

Keep it simple, though. Being asked to focus on too many difficult goals at once leads to lower performance on complex tasks; people become overwhelmed and struggle to prioritize what they should be working on.

In complex, dynamic work, I recommend that professionals keep focused on learning first and foremost because it leads to the best long-term performance.


Lawyers and accountants who need to learn new work processes –  project management or technology, for example – to adapt to a changing market can become frustrated if the rewards of doing so are unclear or mismatched to the risks involved.

The next phase of Dr. Woodwark’s research will focus on how organizational training and reward systems interrelate with objectives to support top performance, including how to get more people to buy-in to the importance of setting learning goals. You can read more about her research on the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics website.

A version of this post was published on the Canadian legal blog on November 18, 2015