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The Plus One Approach

Updated: May 17, 2023

Slow is smooth, smooth is FAST
US Naval Special Warfare Maxim

Previously, I wrote about the power of expectations to improve performance. These high expectations must come with the understanding that change takes time, effort, intention, and experimentation. Trying to rush ahead, hurry up and go, leads to a “ready-fire-aim” style of design, and that’s not going to get us the results we want.

Building and supporting expert learning is often described as a marathon, not a sprint. More accurately, it’s a journey, not a destination. You’re never going to be done, and you have to be ok with that. All great pursuits are like this. I’m never going to be done trying to be a better husband, a better dad, a better person, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get a little better every day, in every interaction, with every decision.

To take that first step, I highly recommend the Plus One Approach, something I learned from author, professor, and expert on expert learning in higher education, Dr. Thomas J. Tobin.[i] The Plus One approach allows you the opportunity to build your ability to diagnose and address barriers to learning in small increments, building proficiency over time. Here’s how it works:

  1. Select a learning environment you’ve supported before and will do so again. This could be an onboarding seminar, a technical training event, or something else.

  2. Determine the biggest pinch point. Where did the learning get stuck the most? When did the most hands go up or the most energy seem to wane? What did people miss most often on the assessment?

  3. Hypothesize the barrier. What do you think is getting in the way of learning?

  4. Design a countermeasure. What could you introduce into the learning environment, for example, clear instructions, a five-minute break, or visual supports, to address the barrier?

  5. Try it out. Conduct the learning event with the new countermeasure in place. Commit to its use, even if it’s causing you some anxiety. This is an experiment.

  6. Reflect on the results. How did the experiment go? Did the countermeasure address the barrier, and how do you know?

The Plus One approach is about building a deliberate practice through small incremental changes. Don’t try to do too much; do just one new thing. In the navy, we had a saying: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” Start slowly and build a strong foundation. As your practice becomes more focused, you will become more fluid and more capable and slow will become smooth. You’ll find yourself more quickly identifying barriers and having a wider variety of countermeasures that you can deploy to deal with them. That’s when smooth becomes fast, and you’ll start doing Plus Two, Plus Three, and so on.


[i] Tobin, Thomas, and K. T. Behling. Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. West Virginia University Press, 2018,

James McKenna

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I'm James

I love to learn, and l love to help others do the same. I write, I appear on podcasts, and sometimes speak at conferences. I share content here and hope you'll find it helpful. 

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