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The apparent contradicting philosophies of “Talent Is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin and “Standout” by Marcus Buckingham is made more real by the hyperbole in their titles. Colvin sets out to disprove that an arbitrary genetic propensity to greatness or genius is behind world-class performers in music, art, business, or sport; while the full weight of the Gallup Organization and it’s Vice President, Marcus Buckingham, presents data that suggests that a small subset of strengths defines the situations where we’ll most likely excel. After presenting a brief book report on each, I’ll explain how a manager marching along the Heroic Management Path can combine the ideas of deliberate practice with strength assessment to improve employee performance.

Talent is Overrated

The employee savant is a legend -- in order to achieve excellence you must constantly be blending deliberate practice with developing your strengths.The legend of genius in the modern age is pervasive. The sports fan can turn to the example of Micheal Jordan’s gravity defying antics, the classical musician recounts the compositions of Mozart at five years of age, and the business analyst may point to Warren Buffet’s long time ability to pick winning companies at the right time for the market. However, each of these examples, with just a slight scratch beneath the surface, reveal similarities in both the cause and the effects.

The Cause of all World-Class Performance

My Little League baseball coach with the unfortunate name Michael Hunt would declare that “practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” In case after case, performance at the highest level is the result of sustained practice with feedback to ensure improvement, what Colvin calls Deliberate Practice. Deliberate Practice loosely defined as:

“activities that are designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.”

So by this point in my reading, I get how Larry Bird becomes the best set shooter in the game. He shoots 1,000 free throws, everyday from the time he grows enough to make a reasonable effort, let’s say twelve years of age and through his entire career or over 7.3 million free throws in practice. If he maintained his in-game percentage, that’s over 700,000 misses, which given his excellence in clutch situations, means each one had important information that he learned to recognize, feedback, and improve. But, what about me, how can I practice 7 million 1-on–1’s to improve as a manager?

The important distinction is that for many activities there is not an obvious means to practice directly, so the design of deliberate practice must be innovative and include indirect practice drills. Models for designing Deliberate Practice Routines can include some or all of the below, depending on the skill targeted and the situation.

  • Practicing DirectlyThe employee savant is a legend -- in order to achieve excellence you must constantly be blending deliberate practice with developing your strengths.
    • The Music Model
    • The Chess Model
    • The Sports Model
  • “Third-Person” Awareness Practice
    • Goal setting and visualizing task excellence
    • Observation and self-regulation during the work
    • Accountability and a fair feedback loop
  • Deepening Your Knowledge
    • Develop Mental Models

In brief, practicing directly involves: 1) knowing what you are required to excel at and practicing it beforehand (the music model); 2) studying the relevant historical information, tactics, and strategies so you can recognize them almost inherently, before thought, a priori (the chess model); or 3) drills that condition mind and body for endurance and ‘muscle’ memory (the sports model).

Speeches are a common business use of the music model in business, but Colvin also suggests preparatory practice for Crucial Confrontations or performance appraisals, conversations that will set both the morale and direction of personnel for the next period and that will get intense scrutiny from the employee. For the manager required to deliver a speech or a difficult message to one of his or her employees, perfect practice using video and comparing it against a world-class speech or Youtube video of a well-managed performance evaluation can help ensure success.

The employee savant is a legend -- in order to achieve excellence you must constantly be blending deliberate practice with developing your strengths.Developing technical excellence requires understanding the fundementals and researching the most recent R&D coming out of university and consortiums, then modelling how it could be important in your particular engineering job. The chess model makes it clear that it is not just enough to know the historical games, but one must also understand how to apply this knowledge in a situation. In my role as an engineering manager, I see excellent troubleshooting stemming not from the facts that someone knows about the current vacuum issue, but how well they apply the fundementals flow dynamics or process control with lessons learned from previous problems and, most importantly, their solutions and feedback on the troubleshooting process.

Conditioning by drilling on the fundamentals and honing gametime skills are the two key components of the sports model. There is a lot of overlap between the sports model and the chess model for the employee. I have asked different engineers to go back and relearn non-normal Statistical Process Control (SPC) by going back into old textbooks and working out exercises, while tasking others to learn how to script in JMP to enhance experimental data analysis for large datasets. Merging these two engineers into a team enabled the development of improved SPC for non-normal datasets we deal with.

Colvin lastly introduces us to a practice mode common to music, chess, sports, business, and, most prevalently, meditation – practice through visualization, awareness, and feedback. These practices and the mental models they create are the cornerstone of the heroic path of the employee and deserve their own section to better contemplate their implementation.

Zen and the Art of the Science Fair

In my forthcoming ebook on Life Design, I go through the OIREWA Method, a framework enabling any situation to be solved through the Scientific Method. Colvin takes the middle step, the thought experiment or mental modeling, out of the OIREWA Method, also lightly touching on the importance of focused observation or awareness.

blending deliberate practice with developing your strengths.While we can’t all go through peer review journals to understand the holes in our logic, we can take our most important tasks, those we want to develop into strengths, and run them through our own mental models.

Einstein was famous for this type of thought experiment. What would an observer see if I was on a train traveling at the speed of light? What time would my watch show compared to hers? Not being able to run these experiments in real life did not hinder Einstein from running them in his head. The simulated lab of the mind opens many more possibilities.

We are always observing, taking in data in either a designed manner or by just having our eyes open. However, a more focused observation — practicing mindfulness, monitors our improvements and feeds back opportunities is what separates good from great performance. According to Colvin, “the best performers observe themselves closely, are in effect able to step outside themselves, monitor what is happening in their own minds, and ask how it is going.”

This type of metacognition is just the first step of the scientific method and this type of awareness should not just be limited to work performance but instead should be used in observing scientific and not-so-scientific experiments, and for the world at large. The next step in the scientific method is the creative use of the imagination and information from focused observation to develop a host of possible solutions to the issue at hand. Developing the most likely solution from these hypothesis is then done through mental modeling or thought experiments.

In the Reason phase of the OIREWA model, decision making is done by iterating the various hypothesized solutions through the problem and imagining the outcome based on the data at hand from focused, unbiased observation. The more often these models are used to visualize the outcomes of key problem-solution sets, the better they will become at predicting the actual best solution and outcomes of the real-world experience. Colvin introduces us to two groups of firefighters, novices and experts, that were shown the same sets of pictures of actual fires. The novices highlighted many of the practical details, but the experienced firefighters developed the story around what was happening in the picture and what was likely to happen next. Since these inferences were mostly correct, the more experienced firefighters were clearly more prepared to fight fires and adapt than were their rookie counterparts. In other words, there is evidence that developing solutions through thought-experiment and visualization improves performance.

blending deliberate practice with developing your strengths.Finally, once any solution is implemented, the cycle returns to observation, filling the databank with information. This feedback is critical to determining improvement paths, practice upgrades, and new goals and metrics. The feedback must be specific, measurable, and define a new set of experiments to try, ways the models can be updated. Peak performance is only possible with goals set for meets and exceeds expectations that are at appropriate standards, measurable, and regularly evaluated and iterated to further drive performance after the deadline is passed.

To see world-class execution in employees, it is up to the manager and the organization to design opportunities to perfectly practice the key job responsibility that assists the bottom-line. These practice methods are often internal to each employee, where awareness, visualization, training, and self-evaluations are done for the intrinsic motivation of job mastery and the competitive motivation of promotion and improvement over one’s peers. However, with creativity on the part of the manager, each employee should have a development plan that implements one or more of the Scientific Method, Chess, Music, or Sports practice methods. Furthermore, evaluations should feedback into these models making actionable the ways in which an employee can improve.

Standout: Find Your Edge. Win at Work

Take a survey, find your strengths, perform at your highest level, overwhelm the competition. Seems to good to be true, but the data is compelling given its heredity coming out of the Gallup organization. And as far as surveys are concerned, they updates to the “Standout” survey are situational and behavioral in nature, framing various “right answers” against a problem and evaluating the manager’s propensities. No more is there a spectrum of answers but just one solution you are more likely to implement instinctually.

“Standout” and “Now, Discover Your Strengths” are short and more prescriptive than informative. Instead of various behavioral science experiments giving you insight into the overall thesis, the authors rest on polling data to group you into a strength group. “Standout measure the way you instinctively react to the scenarios, so your results reveal how you come across to others.” The algorithm that bins you into your strengths, we are led to believe, is numerical based on reams of polling data and our answers to our own assessment.

In a different post, I’ll reveal my strengths assessment information but feel that overall, a quick survey has little chance of capturing what my strengths are, these things take time and self-reflection. Furthermore, the buzz-word level bins that “Standout” uses to define your greatest value seem to be modern day fortune telling, where you are given vague ideas that apply to anyone driven enough to use the strengths assessment tools in the first place. For my management, a large evaluation criteria for my development is that I “understand and develop my strengths.” I know they want more detail and have little invested in tools like the “Standout Assessment.”

Strengths are on more than just the instinctual level, they are what you prefer to spend time on, are the things you willing to work hard towards. Your strengths are the things you have spent time practicing, honing them from skills to strengths – strengths come naturally, you perform them “in the zone.”

I Know it When I See It: The Effect of World-Class Performance

World-class performance is being in the zone: knowing more, remembering more, acting with complete awareness of the inner and outer mental and/or physical situation. The fact that finding our flow both enhances our intrinsic motivation to practice and improves our performance ties skills developed through deliberate practice into a “chicken-egg paradigm” with strengths.

Back to the beginning:

– Are you innately strong in something, easing your access to the zone, motivating you to practice deliberately to get better or
– do you start practicing something and see modest advantage at it at first, motivating you to practice more so you can get that feeling of flow more often?

Experience and the information presented in “Talent is Overrated” suggests the later. If you hustle and spend time deliberately practicing a skill, iterating on the feedback you get, conditioning body and mind, designing practice drill and mental models, all the while aware of yourself and small improvements you can make, you’ll gain the strength you desire.

The employee savant is a legend — in order to achieve excellence you must constantly be blending deliberate practice with developing your strengths.

The key is to keep deliberately practicing, no one who ever achieved greatness did so without effort. You have to put in the time. When you have found flow, when you are Zen and found how to get in the zone, even practice is fun because you are aware that every visualization-action-feedback loop makes you incrementally better. And then sweat makes you smile.