April 14, 2009
Why talent is overrated Part VI by Geoff Colvin
Bottom line, at most companies: The fundamentals of fostering great performance are mainly unrecognized or ignored. Of course that means the opportunities for achieving advantage by adopting the principles of great performance are huge. A few companies realize that. They embed mentoring and coaching in the culture, develop employees' careers through carefully chosen growth assignments, and increasingly put people through high-fidelity simulations, among other steps.
But maybe you don't work in one of these organizations, and maybe you're not in a position to change your company's culture and way of operating. How can you apply the principles of great performance on your own? The opportunities are far more available than we usually realize, even in environments where it's tough to take practice time away from real work.
Among them are well-established methods for practicing in the work itself. And they're all done in your head. Researchers call those activities self-regulation. To be most effective, it must be something you do before, during, and after the work activity itself.
6) Before the work. Self-regulation begins with setting goals - not big, life-directing goals, but more immediate goals for what you're going to be doing today. In the research, the poorest performers don't set goals at all; they just slog through their work. Mediocre performers set goals that are general and are often focused on simply achieving a good outcome - win the order; get the new project proposal done. The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.
For example, instead of just winning the order, their goal might be to focus especially hard on discerning the customer's unstated needs. You can see how this is strongly analogous to the first step of deliberate practice. The best performers are focused on how they could get better at some specific element of the work, just as a pianist may focus on improving a particular passage.
With a goal set, the next step is planning how to reach it. Again, the best performers make the most specific, technique-oriented plans. They're thinking exactly, not vaguely, of how to get where they're going. So if their goal is discerning the customer's unstated needs, their plan for achieving it on that day may be to listen for certain key words the customer might use, or to ask specific questions to bring out the customer's crucial issues.
7) During the work. The most important self-regulatory skill that top performers in every field use during their work is self-observation. For example, ordinary endurance runners in a race tend to think about anything other than what they're doing; it's painful, after all, and they want to take their minds off it. Elite runners, by contrast, focus intensely on themselves. Among other things, they count their breaths and simultaneously count their strides in order to maintain certain ratios.
Even in purely mental work, the best performers observe themselves closely. They are able to monitor what is happening in their own minds and ask how it's going. Researchers call this metacognition - knowledge about your own knowledge, thinking about your own thinking. Top performers do this much more systematically than others do; it's an established part of their routine.
Metacognition is important because situations change as they play out. Apart from its role in finding opportunities for practice, it plays a valuable part in helping top performers adapt to changing conditions. When a customer raises a completely unexpected problem in a deal negotiation, an excellent businessperson can pause mentally and observe his own mental processes as if from outside: Have I fully understood what's really behind this objection? Am I angry? Am I being hijacked by my emotions? Do I need a different strategy here? What should it be?
After the work. Practice activities are worthless without useful feedback about the results. These must be self-evaluations; since the practice activities took place in our own minds, only we can know fully what we were attempting or judge how it turned out. Excellent performers judge themselves differently than most people do. They're more specific, just as they are when they set goals and strategies. Average performers are content to tell themselves that they did great or poorly or okay.
By contrast, the best performers judge themselves against a standard that's relevant for what they're trying to achieve. Sometimes they compare their performance with their own personal best; sometimes they compare it with the performance of competitors they're facing or expect to face; sometimes they compare it with the best known performance by anyone in the field.
Any of those can make sense; the key, as in all deliberate practice, is to choose a comparison that stretches you just beyond your current limits. Research confirms what common sense tells us, that too high a standard is discouraging and not very instructive, while too low a standard produces no advancement.
Check Bak next week for another great article from Koach karl.