Posted by Christine Schaefer
Think you need gifted people in your organization to succeed? Or that sheer hard work is bound to deliver your desired results? Either way, think again. Geoff Colvin, Fortune magazine senior editor-at-large and author of Talented Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, makes the case that innate talent is not what’s behind the greatest performances in multiple fields of human endeavor. At the same time, he finds that the work it takes to achieve the best performance must reflect a few critical elements and principles. The good news Colvin conveys is that individuals and organizations alike can achieve high performance through the developmental approach he calls deliberate practice. I recently interviewed him to learn more about his insights on great performance and his keynote presentation at the Baldrige Program’s upcoming Quest for Excellence® conference. Following is the interview.
During your Quest for Excellence presentation, will you explain how organizations can improve and excel through such practice?
Yes. First I’ll tell you why I think this is so important and why I strongly believe that it’s more important than it used to be for organizations to do this.
A trend that has accelerated greatly since I was writing Talented Is Overrated is that standards are rising in any competitive field. And the vast majority of the organizations that we all deal with are in competitive fields, even if they’re nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits are still trying to fulfill a mission, and there are forces out there that may well be trying to fulfill that mission better than they do. They may be motivated entirely by humanitarian goals, but they’re still going to have to get better if they want to fulfill their mission.
Of course, in profit-making businesses, competition has been a fact of life forever, but it’s getting more intense. There are a few reasons for this. One is that customers and competitors increasingly have more information and are better able to communicate with one another. What that means essentially is that information costs, transaction costs, and switching costs are dropping essentially to zero. This is what Bill Gates long ago called a friction-free economy, which is a wonderful thing—it’s extremely efficient—but the reality is that lots of organizations actually relied on friction: Life was a little easier for them because customers didn’t know they could get a better deal someplace else. Or even if they knew, it was too hard to make the switch; the transactions were expensive so they didn’t make the switch.
In the Baldrige Program, we work with organizations in the health care and education sectors too that have had to address new challenges as customers and other stakeholders come to them with much information that’s available online these days.
I get precisely the same response when I talk about these things to many different groups. Recently I was talking to a group that was overwhelmingly business people; one member of the audience came up to me afterward and said he was a staff member on a congressional committee. And he said, “Everything that you’re talking about applies to us in government.” And people from universities have come up to me to say that everything that I was talking about applies to them as well.
So in all sectors of the economy, you’re seeing organizations facing more complex challenges in their operating environments today?
Right. That’s really it. We’re all facing these new challenges. To respond effectively—to remain effective organizations—we all have to get better. Depending on the kind of business that you’re in and the kind of organization you are, you may be facing pressures from around the world, even in health care.
We all use the phrase world-class pretty loosely, but the truth is that there is international competition in a great number of sectors today. So we actually have to be world-class. We have to figure out how to get significantly better in ways that we didn’t have to do before.
Everyone wants to get better—that’s all very nice. But the truth is, we have to get better in this more open, friction-free environment. We have to get better if we’re going to stay in the game. So that’s why it’s important to understand this question of where great performance really comes from. Whether it’s for individuals or organizations, the basic principles are the same.
You’ve written that a lot of organizations are not good in the area of developing employees for high performance. Would you please elaborate on that?
Sure. In general, most companies just don’t do a very good job of what a lot of them call leadership development. Whatever you call it, they don’t do a very good job of developing employees. They want everybody to do their job well, and they figure they’ll just observe who does their job well and then give them bigger jobs. What I see happening in recent years is that a lot of companies are realizing that isn’t enough. They realize they need a good strong program of developing employees. They look to the handful of companies that have taken this seriously for a long time. And they’re all getting with the program now and trying to catch up.
That’s in general. The specific issue is that the principles of deliberate practice that I talk about in the book seem to be completely forgotten at most organizations. When I say forgotten, I mean everybody sort of knows them: everybody understands when they’re watching a sports team or listening to a great musician how those people got so good—through the principles of deliberate practice. Yet when they get to work, they don’t apply those principles to individuals or to the organization. What I’m going to argue in my presentation is that the organizations that do apply those principles perform much, much better. The same principles apply to performance of individuals and organizations, and I’ll give examples of each.
Why do you think that organizations are short-sighted in this area or just aren’t making the effort?
In my experience, it’s because they feel they can’t afford to have people not performing. Deliberate practice is an activity separate from the actual performance of the work. There are ways to practice in the work, but real deliberate practice is an activity separate from the work.
Again, when you look at sports and music, that’s obvious. Musicians may spend 95 percent of their time practicing and 5 percent performing; for an NFL football player it’s a similar ratio: 95 percent of his time practicing, 5 percent actually performing the activity that he gets paid for. But in business, we all feel that we can’t take time off from actually doing our work in order to practice for doing our work better.
So most companies don’t do it. The best ones realize that it isn’t an expense when you do that; it’s an investment. And it pays off. A leap of faith is required the first time you start down that road. Even though you may be convinced, you don’t know for sure that it’s actually going to pay off. So a lot of managers just feel they can’t afford it. The best ones understand they not only can afford it, but they really have to do it.
You’ve written that you’ve been surprised by strong interest in your book by some groups of people you assumed would already be aware of how best to improve their performance. Would you please give some examples?
Sure. At the individual level, I got a call from the manager of the bookstore at the Juilliard School in New York to come in and sign copies of the book. I said, “Sure,” but I thought, “If there’s one group of people in the world who do not need this book, it’s the students at the Juilliard School—they got there because they understand deeply everything I talk about in the book.” The manager later told me that it’s the bestselling title they’ve ever carried in that store. So that began to tell me that even the people who understand these principles the best are the ones who want to understand them even better. They want to know how great performance works and why.
A different example but similar in some ways: I was asked to talk to an audience of one thousand brain surgeons. I thought, “These are the smartest people you can think of, and they do this incredibly difficult thing.” So I was worried about how that would go. Well, they loved hearing about what it takes to improve performance. Afterward, those brain surgeons were lined up out the door for me to sign their books. I thought, “This is telling us something—that the people who presumably understand these things got as good as they are because they keep wanting to get better. That’s an interesting lesson.”
With regard to organizations, I’ve had a few experiences that I’ll tell about at the Quest conference. A medical products company decided to prepare for the introduction of a new product using the principles, taking employees away from selling in order to practice and prepare. This was a gamble. You take them out of the field and train them while they’re doing deliberate practice. The results were almost literally off the charts. I’ll explain that in detail in my presentation.
For those organizations whose leaders say, “We don’t have the resources to really invest in our employees, especially to take them off the front line,” how would you make the argument to invest in their workforce?
I would hope that it wouldn’t be a tough sell. When you look at the companies that are famous for investing in their workforces, they tend to be great performers.
One objection that I’ve encountered in companies is managers saying that in today’s environment, young people especially are just not going to stay with them for long. “I can train them, but I’m training them for my competitors,” they say.
But then they discover, “If I don’t offer the training, I won’t attract the best people in the first place.” The other thing they discover is that a lot of those people will stay longer than they expected them to because they like what the place is doing for them.
You’re still going to lose some good people. That’s inevitable. But you’re going to get better people and you’re going to keep them longer than if you didn’t offer the development. So I think it’s actually an easy sell.
What are some other things that you’re focusing on now–and in your next book–that may help organizations improve their performance?
The title of the new book is Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will. It begins with the question, In a few years, what will people do better than computers? It turns out to be a very sobering question because the more you look into it, the more it looks like it’s going to be hard to find things that people do better than computers.
Very intelligent people have said that artificial intelligence can threaten the existence of humanity. Even if you don’t think machines are going to rise up and kill all the humans, there are still mainstream people now who are thinking that for the first time in history, technology may actually eliminate some jobs faster than it creates new ones. So the question becomes, What will people do? What will be the high-value work, what will make organizations great and highly successful, and what will earn a rising living standard for people in a world where computers do more and more stuff—better, faster, cheaper than people can do that stuff?
My answer is, Don’t look for the answer the way people have always done it, which is by asking, What is it that computers inherently can’t do? That won’t get us anywhere. Focus instead on what we as human beings are hard-wired to want to do with other people and get from other people—what is in our deepest nature that we want to do with one another and for one another? If we focus on that, then we’ll be doing stuff that will always have high value, which comes from our deepest and most essential human traits—developing empathy, working in groups, solving problems together, telling stories, building relationships. The best organizations now are focusing on exactly those things. We see empathy-development programs in particular at many organizations.
The research on what makes groups effective—what makes teams effective—shows that it’s all about social sensitivity. It has little to do with the IQ of the team members. It really is important for organizations to understand this in order to perform better.
To hear Colvin’s keynote presentation at the Baldrige Program’s Quest for Excellence® Conference on Wednesday, April 15, in Baltimore, MD, register for the conference now.