Category Archives: Development

Achieving Peak Performance

“No one appreciates the agonizing effort (Miyamoto) Musashi has made.  Now that his years of training have yielded spectacular results, everybody talks about his “God-given talent.”  That’s how men who don’t try very hard comfort themselves.” – Yoshikawa Eiji

Struggling to reach your potential is hard work and in the words of Robert Browning, it is “a road less traveled.”  And while it is not clear why so few put in the time and dedication to discover just how good they can be, it is clear that what is often mistaken for God-given talent is just the byproduct of what Geoffrey Colvin calls “deliberate practice.”  In his book, Talent is Overrated, Colvin dispels the myth that peak performers are predestined for greatness.  Colvin found that not only was future greatness not determined by your genetics, it wasn’t solely a function of hard work either.  In study after study, Colvin found that “many people not only fail to become outstanding at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.”

In industry after industry, when it comes to mastering critical skills, people with lots of experience are often no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.  Even more scary, when it comes to leadership ability, a study from INSEAD business school found that managers with experience did not produce better quality outcomes (on average) than those without experience….and occasionally, actually got worse with experience.

So if peak performance is not based on talent or hard work alone…how can we escape the “experience trap” and reach our potential?  It turns out there are four keys to becoming a peak performer:

Know the right behaviors – while this may sound easy, discovering the right behaviors you need to master can be a challenge.  Even with keen observation and careful analysis, most peak performers struggle to identify and share the “secrets to their success.”  As I wrote in “Mastering New Skills,” while “there are always explicit aspects of what experts will share and tell you to practice…more often than not the more important points come from the implicit behaviors the experts do, but do not explicitly practice, teach or even notice.”  Begin by narrowing your focus to these behaviors.

Accurately and honestly assess where you are – after identifying the behaviors you want to master, the next step is to baseline your current performance.  The problem is, our brains are programed to tell us the story we want to hear about our level of expertise, rather than the one we need to hear.  That, combined with our fragile egos can spell trouble for seeing the gap between the behaviors we want and those we currently exhibit.

Put in the reps – Next, get your hands dirty and do the work.  I have heard it said that you need to repeat an action 10,000 times before you truly make it a reflexive movement.  Colvin says it takes peak performers 10 years of deliberate practice to make the skill appear God-given.  Either way you look at it, be prepared for work hard, sacrifice and struggle on your way to mastery.

Have faith in the process – finally, you have to believe that if you identify the right behaviors, embrace your gap and do the work, results will follow.  The results always lag the thousands of repetitions, so without an unwavering faith in the process, the odds are high you will quit long before you accomplish your goals.

The formula for achieving greatness is not difficult, but it is demanding.  The road is long and hard and requires both patience and persistence.  To be successful you need to know both the critical behaviors that lead to success and to be open and honest about your current skill level.  Armed with the knowledge of your gap and belief in the process, you can set your sights on internalizing the behaviors and mastering the new skills.

The Power of an “Impossible” Goal

A $2,000 car?  The Chairman of Suzuki Motor Corporation said it was impossible…but, that didn’t deter Ratan Tata.  Motivated by a passion for meeting the needs of India’s impoverished people, the Chairman of Tata Motors assembled a five person engineering team (with an average age of 27) and launched a four year journey which began with an audacious goal and ended with a paradigm shift in the auto industry.

Rather than begin with a set of design criteria for the team to use when approaching the problem, Tata gave them an impossible goal: build a car for $2,000.  In fact, the cost target was the only fixed point with which the team was forced to work.  In every other aspect of the project, the team was challenged to “question the unquestionable” and utilize an open innovation model which considered ideas from anywhere and everywhere.

The audaciousness of the goal combined with the freedom to “break the rules” led to many industry leading innovations.  The Nano is the first time a 2 cylinder gas engine has been used in a car with a single balancer shaft.  Adhesives have replaced all rivets and mechanisms from a helicopter were used when designing the seats and windows.  The car’s 9 foot frame is 8% shorter than other compact cars, while providing the passengers 21% more interior room.   In addition, each part in the car serves a dual function, resulting in 1/2 the total number of parts as a normal car.  Finally, the team also had to think about its supply chain differently.  The Nano was designed in partnership with Tato’s vendors and suppliers, 100 vendors were co-located adjacent to the plant and the company developed a new business model for dealerships which slashed distribution costs.

The development of the Tata Nano is one of many examples of leaders inspiring teams to achieve seemingly impossible goals in the midst of tight deadlines.  As with each of these game changing innovations, it was Tata’s unwavering commitment to an impossible goal combined with a freedom to experiment by the engineering team which caused a shift in the paradigm.  All to often however, leaders take an opposite approach when trying to drive innovation.  The goals set are far too safe to force a new way of thinking and rather then giving teams latitude to experiment, they script their actions through detailed charters, procedures and return on investment criteria.  The combination of weak goals and stifling process boundaries kills creativity and ensures mediocrity.

If you want to experience the power of a inspired team who believes there is nothing they can’t accomplish, set an impossible goal and give your people the autonomy to discover radically new solutions to some of your toughest challenges.

“Impossible is nothing.” – Adidas

Teaching Kids to Lead

The Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India is an amazing experiment in empowering children and creating future leaders.  Founded in 2001, Kiram Bir Sethi and her team have created a unique learning environment where “common sense is common practice” and the overriding goal is to infect each child with the “I can” bug.  Besides developing a place where children are empowered to blur the lines between school and life, the unique curriculum has also yielded academic success.  Based on a benchmark study of 2,000 schools in India, Riverside beat the top 10 schools in math, science and english.

Even more exciting however, the school provides us with a great example of how to use simple, inspiring processes to driving dramatic change and tap into the multiplier effect.  In 2009, the school launched a contest called “Design for Change” where students are challenged to implement an idea to solve a problem they are passionate about. The only criteria for the idea is that it be of benefit to many people, look to solve an existing problem from a fresh prospective, and have the potential to see change in the lives of others as well as the students.  Using a powerful combination of inspiration and simplification, the contest reached 32,000 schools in India in its first year and has now spread to other countries.

So how did the school’s simple contest spread like wildfire and evoke such excitement and commitment?  While there are undoubtedly a host of reasons, here are a couple I think are most relevant for other leaders.  First, the contest uses a simple step-by-step process which leverages the school’s four phase development model; see the change (feel), be changed (imagine), lead the change (do) and spread the change (infect).  This model focuses on empowering the children to connect with an inspiring purpose, as well as puts the change process squarely in their hands.  The children not only have the autonomy to choose their team and brainstorm ideas, but they are responsible for designing a simple implementation plan and putting it into action.  Second, reflecting on the outcome of the change and sharing it with others is a required part of the process.  This allows the students an opportunity to cement their learning and at the same time infect others with their passion and results.  Finally, as the children share their stories they are able to be recognized by their community for their efforts.  Recognition received by parents and peers is a powerful motivator for future action.

This combination of inspiring with a purpose, driving engagement through autonomy and sharing stories of success creates intrinsic motivation in the hearts of each child and turns the competition into a powerful force for social change.  Similar to what we discovered in our work with front line supervisors and managers, effective change isn’t about the tools or techniques of process improvement.  Success is a function of how well you empower people to challenge their beliefs of what’s possible and build a change process which is simple to implement and share with others.  When people are inspired with a purpose and confident in their ability to shape the change, their creative spirit is unleashed and infused with the fuel of confident expectations.

Discovery-Based Implementation

In his work as an educational theorist, John Dewey believed that discovery-based education yielded the best learning.  By allowing learners to connect with information through participation and experimentation they engaged more fully and identified new ideas and conceptual patterns through the interaction.  In addition, the brain activity is heightened when the information presented is slightly ambiguous rather than explicit.  By leaving “gaps” in the information and some “fuzziness” in the details, you encourage the learner to use their brains to fill in the blanks.  By doing this, their creativity and imagination is sparked and the learner is better able to catalogue and retrieve information easily in the future.

I believe the same principles apply when engaging people in process improvement.  If your goal is to create a culture of continuous improvement, it is critical to structure the environment and daily processes to promote discovery-based learning.  Similar to Dewey’s findings in education, the key to driving high levels of creativity, initiative, and ownership in the improvement process is to leave the details of the plan “fuzzy” and create opportunities for people to struggle and identify new ways to accomplish organizational goals.  The trick is to allow people the time, resources and latitude to take ownership of the issues, tinker with new process possibilities and discover how creative they can be.  The tradeoff for allowing people the opportunity to discover their own solutions, is that you create a powerful group of explorers who have confidence in their ability to take risks to accomplish stretch goals while at the same time learning at an exponential rate.

One of the difficulties in implementing this approach to learning, is finding the right balance between being crystal clear about your expectations for results while at the same time being ambiguous enough to allow the learner to take ownership of the details and exercise autonomy in the creation process.  While I have yet to achieve a perfect balance, I think it is wise err on the side of allowing people to struggle with ambiguity rather than rest in clarity.

“The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative.” – John Dewey

Structuring the Development of People

I have written before about the importance of the structure and physical space in driving the development of right behaviors in an organization.  On my last trip to Japan, I was again stuck by the way the japanese use physical space and organizational structure to shape the growth and development of their people.  I think examples of their approach to development can be seen in the landscaping techniques they employ.  The japanese use physical items such as bamboo, rope, etc. to guide the development and growth of plants.  In addition, they tend to contour many of the plants to be an extension of the concrete or other permanent structures around them.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

If  you look closely, you will notice that there is a surprising amount of shaping and care that goes into getting each shrub to be uniform in appearance.  You may also notice that they have created a bamboo structure that guides the development and provides the skeleton upon which they are shaping the growth of the shrubs.  Not only am I struck by the care and precision of the use of the bamboo and the twine, but  instead of attaching it directly with twine, they use a padding to protect the shrub from any harsh outcomes that may be experienced from attaching it to the bamboo.

I think this care taken for the plant and its development is a good metaphor for the the way the japanese approach the development of people.  First, they are keenly aware of the use of space and structure in guiding the development of people.  The use of an A3 operates must like the bamboo structure as a tool for coaching and mentoring.  Second, when it comes structuring work, they are obsessive about details and demonstrate a high level of respect for each person (like the care taken with each plant).  This respect shows itself most prominently in two other ways.

First, the japanese not only use visuals to demonstrate abnormal from normal for processes, but they also use visuals as a sign of respect by openly communicating status to everyone and eliminating potential confusion.  Secondly, safety and ergonomic issues are their biggest concern in both daily work and process improvements.  As with the approach to shaping and developing each plant under their care, the japanese use organizational structure and management tools to create an environment of challenge and respect for people.

Mastering New Skills

A few years ago, I was challenged to create a sales boot camp to significantly reduce the time it took to master the selling process in a retail furniture environment.  Whereas it had previously taken 6-12 months to train a new sales person, our goal was to do it 90 days.  After benchmarking the best sales people in multiple markets across the United States, and creating a radical “learn by doing” training process, we were able to reduce the time to 5 days.  In the process, we learned a few critical lessons about mastering new skills in record time that I thought I would share.

After identifying the skills you want to master, the first order of business is to find recognized experts from whom you can learn.  Your goal is to aggressively analyze the information presented by the experts and look for key behaviors you can exploit to learn the skill quickly.  When learning from experts however, pay close attention to what you see, but what may not be said.  There are always explicit aspects of what experts will share and tell you to practice, but more often than not the more important points come from the implicit behaviors they do that they do not explicitly practice, teach or even notice.  It is these behaviors that are the most important to master.  Next, create an inventory of these key characteristics and behaviors and analyze them to “see” the underlying pattern.  Identifying the patterns of success will allow you to focus your activities and maximize the time you spend learning new behaviors.

Second, focus 110% of your energy on mastering the behaviors you identified.  No amount of knowledge can replace getting your hands dirty and “putting in the reps.”  Also, If you want to achieve your goals in record time remember the truth of Parkinson’s Law and impose strict deadlines on your activities.  Setting an aggressive pace and creating some “self-imposed” stress will help spur motivation and increase the rate of your improvements.

Finally, there is great power in inviting others to share in your journey.  Share your goals with everyone you know and be explicit with requests for help in identifying experts, sources of research, and materials that may help you identity the explicit and implicit behavioral patterns.  In addition, openly invite others to share in your learning experience. Engaging others through participation creates a community of supporters who will generate creative ideas, share experiences and provide critical feedback.