We attach the label “great” to persons who achieved outlying performance in certain areas through their efforts and talents. Malcolm Gladwell has analyzed such stellar performance in his best-selling book “Outliers” (see Sources ). He found that three conditions explained a lot of an individual’s success.
The Three Conditions for Great Individual Performance
- Upbringing & Support: Few great persons would have been great without being raised in an education rich environment and without the support of others. Bill Gates, for example, had access to an advanced IBM computer at the age of 13, already in 1968, and his mother has been a director for IBM
- The 10.000 Hour rule: It takes about ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to become a world-class achiever in a particular area. Bill Gates was able to clock those 10.000 hours quite fast, due to his early exposure to computers in 1968
- Sheer circumstance, especially the type of selection process used to identify talent. Take elite Canadian hockey player as an example. They are disproportionally born in the first half of the calendar year, as the cut-off date to select players is the 31stof December. Players are selected by pro teams at an early age, being born is a substantial physical advantage that turns into a career advantage just because some administrative organization set the cut-off date arbitrarily to the last day of the year.
Only the second factor, 10.000 hours of deliberate practice is fully actionable. By practicing hard, challenging ourselves every day, we might achieve greatness. That is a message that aligns well with meritocratic and protestant work ethics: It is a call to work hard.
Working hard does not help in Business
The problem is: Working hard does not always help. More exactly, the truth depends on the field where one aims to be great at. If you aim for a career in gaming, music, and sports, deliberate practice is the key to greatness. According to a 2014 studydeliberate practice is by far the most important factor, the factor with the strongest link between the input (deliberate practice) and career success.
But deliberate practice would not help you much less if you seek a career in education: The strength of the link between deliberate practice and success is just about a fifth of what is sports or music. Other things are just more important, presumably, the upbringing and support, which might explain why being poor is such a sticky social condition.
Plus, the relationship between deliberate practice and professional career success is even weaker. There is still this positive relationship, but it is weak, about 1/20thof the relationship in Sports and Music and one-quarter of the one between deliberate practice and Education.
Seek Advice and Show-up to a Place where Opportunity is
So, if working hard not help, are we helpless to influence our chances to become an outstanding achiever? We are not. Statistical analysis is instrumental in telling us something about average probabilities. But everyone human being is unique and can influence probabilities through actions. While changing personal performance or fortune is hard, it is by no means impossible. Working hard still counts for something, if not as much as one would think is “fair” – if judged from a moral point of view. Here is what can be done to influence the other two factors that Malcolm Gladwell come up with:
- Upbringing & Support: It is never too late to ask for support by others, be that individuals or organizations. It requires courage and the humility to listen to advice and take it in. The ability to listen to advice is a mighty asset. How many people have you met that were impervious to any advice and went on ahead anyway? If you met that kind of people, chances are that, whatever they went after, it did not end well. Even if you are a contrarian and do your own thing anyway, knowing the challenge what you are up against is an advantage.
- Opportunity is not as God-given as one might think. If you lock yourself up in your four walls, if you do not show up and engage with others, the number of opportunities you will discover is limited. In sociologist, self-help and spiritual literature, there is the notion of serendipity. According to the dictionary “Serendipity is the occurrence and development of events by chance in a beneficial way. A random event that happens in the absence of any obvious project, which is not relevant to any present need, or in which the cause is unknown.” Serendipity cannot be forced, but it can be helped by moving into an environment “that gives luck the chance to occur.” Moving into such an environment can be a conscious step: “Luck favors the prepared mind.”
The 4 Layers of Serendipity
Improving yourself through deliberate practice alone is unlikely to increase personal effectiveness in a business career. It helps a bit, but it is not decisive. One is tempted to conclude that hard work is not critical for the advancement of a career either. But that would be pushing Malcolm Gladwell’s findings too far. After all, he explores the condition that allowed top performers to prosper in any domain, not just in business. He wasn’t out to give career advice for the ordinary business professional.
Being Effective in Business
The more relevant question is: What makes a person effective in a business context? That is a question that HR professionals ponder a lot. In order to hire the optimal candidate, HR professionals need to forecast the candidate’s success inside the organization. That is an arduous task. Personal effectiveness is very hard to measure. An excellent effort to do this measurement and forecasting in an academically sound manner has been described by Lazlo Bock, a director of HR at Google, in his book “Work Rules.”The complexity of this subject does not lend itself well to generalization. But what is clear from Bock’s work is that it is not a list of characteristics that is a good predictor of success, but the results of a series of structured tests. Work sample tests deliver the best results for structured tasks with few dependencies. Cognitive ability tests, psychological tests and structured interviews, varied by the type of job, are instrumental in predicting performance for any kind of job.
There is no list of character traits that make a great coworker. There is only a list of tests that ensure that the mental abilities that are needed to succeed in an organization are there. These tests give the data points, that can be used in an elaborate hiring process that manages to weigh the data with subjective inputs from reviewers in a disciplined process.
A hallmark of a proper hiring process is that the odds that a candidate will succeed in a given organization are maximized. The tests devised by HR center around skills and cognitive abilities, as HR can only ensure that the personal endowments that a new hire brings into an organization are what is needed. But these two endowments are just a fourth of what is required for a person to succeed in an organization once hired. Based on a slightly adapted model of Malcolm Gladwell’s model, outstanding performance in a business can be pictured to be a function of:
A. The Endowments
- Cognitive ability
B. The Organization
- The richness of opportunity & support that a business provides
- Personal motivation – as a precursor to deliberate practice, to engage and thereby investing time and personal cognitive abilities fully in the organization
C. Randomness: Sheer Circumstance
Stated this way, each person arrives in an organization with given skills and cognitive ability. These, in turn, have been determined by Gladwell’s three factors: Upbringing & support, deliberate practice and chance. But once a person enters the organization, her or his performance level will be determined by the organization. Consciously designed or not, organizational design and management practices will determine the richness of opportunity and support. And organizational design and management practices determine the ways that employees can find their personal motivation and tie that to their service of the company.
The Serendipitous, Learning Company
A company designed in such a manner can increase the odds that things happen serendipitously, as it allows its members to grow. To grow skills, to sharpen cognitive ability, to find new sources of motivation.
What is needed is an organization that is designed in a way to harness the power of growing individual capabilities. Not just a design to harness the individual capabilities that one has at a given point in time. Rather a design that recognizes the potential of human growth.
This is what I think. What do you think?
- To get to know more about how this organization can look like see The 10 Habits of Liberated Organizations.
- To learn more about learning organizations check out Let a Thousand Nerds Blossom!
- A roadmap to such an Organizational design: 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations
Case Western Reserve University’s assistant professor of psychology Brooke N. MacNamara and colleagues have subsequently performed a comprehensive review of 9,331 research papers about practice relating to acquiring skills. They focused specifically on 88 papers that collected and recorded data about practice times. In their paper, they note regarding the 10,000-hour rule that “This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing,” but “we conducted a meta-analysis It found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.”
Shockingly, the most important factor for professional greatness, to advance your career and yourself might be the company you joined. A company that provides you with opportunities to learn, grow and advance.
Bock, Lazlo “Work Rules,” see Sources