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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pursuit of virtues is neither a way to build talent, nor to succeed in life

If you read any book on the 'keys of success', the book will tell you to follow a long list of traits and virtues such as honesty, hard work, confidence, motivation, pursuit of truth and so on.

But, as we have seen in our earlier blogs, traits are highly contextual, and have only limited significance. For instance, we have discussed how motivation is contextual.  Even confidence is contextual. Because of their contextual nature, traits are both time-dependent and relevant for a specific situation. We should not ascribe this traits more 'meaning' than what they represent. We should instead listen' to the signal they are trying to communicate, and take the necessary action. For instance, when the motivation falls for a specific task, it gives us a signal that our challenge is lower. It tells us that we need to find a way to increase our challenge by increasing the complexity of the 'task', for instance. The same rule pertains to confidence. When 'confidence' is lacking in a specific act, be it buying a house or driving a car, we know that our capability is not commensurate to that 'act'. Either we find the right person to help us out or increase our 'capability'. Sometimes, it is better to ignore the low confidence, because when a task is unknown to us, we will naturally feel 'diffident'. Trying to feel confident in all the situations, a symbolic hallmark of corporate achievers, is a sign of 'foolish bravado'.

In the same way, most of the virtues are appropriate for a specific context. Take example of a virtue, which is most talked about; the virtue of honesty. Are you honest if you pick up a lost wallet and give it back to the owner? or are you honest because you refuse to buy a cinema ticket from a rogue outside the cinema theater? or are you honest when you report your every 'cent' of money in the income tax returns? or are you honest because you refuse to pay additional money to the railway ticket officer for getting a reserved seat in a 3-tier coach and instead get down from the train? or are you honest because you refuse to pay 'additional sum' to the ration-card officer and  prefer to re-visit the office repeatedly? As you will realise from some of the multiple situations  described above, one may be 'honest' in some situation and not be so 'honest' in other situation. It is very normal for us to practice honesty that we think is relevant to us and not practice another 'definition' of honesty. Virtues by themselves are not 'right' or 'wrong'. They are just 'appropriate' or 'inappropriate' to the situation. The same is true with other virtues like hardwork, patience, pursuit of truth and countless others.

Many individuals confuse 'virtues' with 'values'. Values are something that we hold close to our heart, irrespective of the difficulty or the challenge we encounter in 'holding them'. In other words, values are not 'nice-to-have virtues' which are appropriate or inappropriate to a situation. Values are strongly held beliefs that we will live for irrespective of the 'damage' that is caused by them.

How do some virtues become values? Values are right-brain outcomes in which we 'ascribe' meaning to virtues. As we have seen in the blog, these right-brain outcome depend on the loosely-knit process that is occurring in our lives unconscious to us. It is a process of clarifying aspirations, understanding and 'resolving' the conflicts in the values one holds and method of closing the gaps that the 'reality' confronts. Because of this process, what is value to you is not a value for me. You may value 'ecology' and I may value 'education'. And when virtues become values, talent becomes a means to an end, not an end. That is the fourth stage of talent embedding phase we discussed in our talent unfolding process.

But do not get misled by the slogans of positive psychologist who tell you to pursue different  kind of virtues and traits like Have a goal, Pursue truth, Be creative, Form a Network, Be committed and so on. Each  new author will present to you with a new list of virtues/traits that will help you succeed in life. This list is a laundry list; 'useful to all' and therefore 'useless to anyone'. Like they say when you believe 'everything is holy' then nothing is holy for you.

For full description of the list of virtues and traits that have attained mythical proportion, please read the book " Sanjiv Bhamre, The five myths of career building"

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

You can acquire talent in more than one way

Talent can be acquired in more than one way; with or without educational background, or by following a role model, or by relying on one's own strengths.

In the earlier blog, we discussed how a working model of a task of 'stock broking' converts knowledge into a skill. One has to 'refine' the same working model to convert the skill into a talent. In other words, your journey of becoming a talented performer in your field is via the 'task model' that you develop. Task model is the medium of acquiring talent.

A working model can be built using solid 'knowledge base' of the ' task area'. For instance, Nicholas Taleb's 'task model' of stock market is based on the theory of 'randomness and probability'. Harshad Mehta, who made huge money from stock broking was a High school student. His 'task model' of stock broking was perhaps based on the simple 'rules' of buy and sell. Although, he later became too ambitious and used 'bank money', which landed him into trouble, one cannot ignore his talent in stock broking. He proved that the task model of  'Stock broking' does not need a degree in Economics or a Phd in Mathematics.

On the other hand, one can follow a completely different route to build one's task model. For instance, Warren Buffet  has a completely different 'working model' of share broking which relies on investing in one or two companies, and then influencing the company by taking huge stake in the company. There are various ways of climbing the mountain, so to say. Warren Buffet used his own 'strengths' to develop a task model of stock broking which earned him millions, as have Nicholas Taleb and Harshad Mehta

Books on talent building ( stock broking or any other talent) are misleading, because there is no one 'best' working model of a task. Every working model is highly 'customised' for the task done by the individual. Whose book will you follow: Nicholas Taleb, Harshad Mehta or Warren Buffet? Only one thing is common: Every task model has to go through the rigorous process of 'reality-testing'. Initial robustness or comprehensiveness does not matter. Accuracy does not matter. It's ultimate value depends on how you do the reality-testing so that the model closely reflects the as-is reality.

One of the biggest class of best seller books are management books written by erstwhile successful managers. As you will realise now, they are not particularly useful because of the above characteristics of task model. Every manager has to built his own 'task model' to manage his own unit/branch/group. The task model of 'management', to be useful, has to be sensitive to context ( depend on the function, domain and industry of the unit), cultural practices of the company in which he or she is working ( implicit company rules and practices) and the personal strength and weakness of the individual who is managing ( people oriented, task oriented ). Because of the highly 'contextual' nature of task model of management, one cannot easily adopt someone else's task model of management. And you will also observe  a curious phenomenon here:  Building a good task model of management does not require any degree in management, or post degree qualification in organisation behaviour.

Apart from task of 'management', which are the two big professional tasks where a talent can be developed without any educational background? Just take a guess. One is cooking !. Another is ....!.Hint: we engage with these talented people every day.

Friday, November 25, 2011

If you cannot monetise your talent you are forced to change your path

In 2004, Dhiraj Rajaraman, at the age of 28,  left a consultancy firm Booz, Allen Hamiltaon,sold his house, to establish a data analytics company. Dhiraj raised a total 400,000 US $ from his friends, started a front end office in US, back end in Bangalore. No body gave him any business in the eight months.For four years, he did not even take his salary. 

Decision analytics talent ( ability to use the information to take decisions) was rare in 2002. When a new talent area emerges in the industry, there is no  ready-made 'market' for that talent for few years.Because there is no 'market', there is no 'money value' attached to that 'skill/talent'. More often than not, it is the person with that talent who has to change his skill-path because he cannot find a buyer who is willing to buy his skill/talent. Because of inadequate opportunities in monetisating the talent, when it was difficult to 'nurture' a talent, one was forced to change one's path.

In early days, one had to depend completely on the intermediary- the company - and the available skill market to monetise one's skill/talent. If the skill/talent was well ahead of its time, then another option was to become an entrepreneur, which was fraught with considerable risk. Since last decade, Internet and VC market, the two big drivers, have brought in huge opportunities to the talented individual.  

Due to internet, global world has become 'localised', which means a person with a narrow skill/talent can also find a 'buyer' for his focused skill and 'monetise' his skill. I know of several individuals who sell their 'skill/talent' by working from home at the time and rate at which they are comfortable. I know of 'researchers' who sell their 'research skills' on a project-to-project basis. I know of a company where 'spiritual' talent has been combined with some other skill to sell 'spirituality' to corporate world. 

But where this is not possible, another option exists: the market of 'venture capital' where funds are available to monetise ideas into marketable product. Venture capitalist ( or angel funders) step in and 'fund' the initial idea, like in the case of Dhiraj Rajaraman. Although this VC market is not as developed in India, as it is in USA, it is developing at a very fast clip. 

Today's talented individuals are more lucky than our forefathers. On the one hand, availability of internet opportunity has made it easier to find a buyer for our talent, while on the other hand, the availability of VC market has made it easier to convert that idea into a marketable product. However this has also meant that 'talented individuals' also should possess additional skills: the skill of using internet and the skill of understanding the business model . Later skill is necessary to convert idea into a marketable product. 

In other words, if you are a talented individual, the boundaries between working for a company ( corporate individual) and working for oneself ( as entrepreneur, freelancer or consultant) are becoming thinner and transparent  One cannot decide in advance that one will work only for a company or for oneself. If one's purpose is to identify and nurture a talent, one has to work anywhere; and with it one also has to learn these 'complementary' skills which were unnecessary in earlier days. 

For today's talented individuals, although their opportunities have multiplied, with it it has also become necessary to learn additional complementary skills ( such as the above skill of identifying business model) to exploit those opportunities. Are you ready to nurture your talent in today's world?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Find suitable mentors to constantly improve your cognitive performance

Performers in Aesthetic and Psycho-motor fields, say in music and tennis, get constant feedback on their performance to improve their performance. For A&P performers, the bigger challenge in improving their performance is not in knowing 'what are they doing wrong', but 'how to correct the wrong', because it is easy to find 'what is wrong'. Better coaching practices in these fields have therefore emerged in knowing how to correct the wrong; because every athlete and musician is unique and requires a different approach to reach the top in his field.

Cognitive performers however face both the challenges in improving their performance: what and how. Because work output in cognitive work is not visible, it is difficult to evaluate cognitive performance through its output, This makes it difficult to know 'what is going wrong'. Infact, one does not even know, if everything is going right.

Because output is not visible in cognitive work (and therefore not measurable ), it cannot be evaluated visavis 'comparable performance' by other performers to guide the process of improvement. For sportsman, getting this comparable benchmark is a standard method of improving. If your serve speed in tennis, for instance, is less than 180 kmph, you know you have to improve that speed. Although performers in aesthetic fields such as music or painting, do not have such comparable benchmarks, they at least have the benefit of visible output. An excellent teacher can 'judge' their output and guide.

On the other hand, the only way to get guidance in improving your cognitive performance is through 'input' route. But,  as we discussed earlier, you require a special kind of person, who has worked both in your field and domain ( for instance, sales and computer software, or programming and telecom domain) to spend time with you, to guide you in your performance. We call this special person a Mentor. This is why, if you are serious about succeeding in the corporate world of knowledge work, Mentors are absolutely necessary in improving your cognitive performance.

Find good mentors if you want to constantly improve your cognitive performance

Good mentors are those who have worked in your combination of specific domain (software, engineering, telecom) and specific function ( sales, design or manufacturing). By asking you the right questions, they can understand your challenges, and definitely help you in developing your performance, especially if your cognitive task is of doing, and not of managing. Doers are the one who do the actual task, like selling, programming, or designing, while managers are the one's who synthesise the task of different doers to produce an output.

Your mentor should have an ability to appreciate the challenges of  your specific task in the context of your strength and limitations.

The first challenge for your mentor is that he/she cannot have a simplistic understanding of your task. For instance, sales task is not just the ability to 'convince someone to buy something', but is far more complex. Variety of strengths can be utilised to perform this task. For instance, it is normally believed that sales task can be performed well by extrovert individuals. But, as we know now, you will find even 'introvert individuals' excel in sales, especially where a 'solution' (software, for instance) has to be sold, not just a product ( car or flat).  The same is true with other doing tasks such as programming, design, production or training (or teaching).

The second challenge in finding mentor is to find someone who can appreciate your strength and limitations. Without this understanding, your mentor will make the mistake of advising 'Rahul Dravid' to be aggressive or advise Virendra Sehwag to bat in a 'technically correct' manner. Your mentor should understand your unique strengths and weakness, and not just offer advice which is technically correct ( such as improve your presentation skills), but which is 'impractical to implement'. Without this understanding, the mentors may give you a 'technically appropriate' prescription, but which is 'impractical'. The prescription may look good on the paper, but could be fundamentally impossible to practice because of your combination of beliefs, emotions and habits.

Because finding mentors for improving management task is structurally difficult, you have to rely on coaches

As the task becomes more varied, such as management, understanding of human being becomes even more critical. Jobs in Management are of very high variety; every job is different than other job, even within a single company. In jobs of such high variety, instead of trying to ' configure the person for a job', it is more practical to 'configure the job for the person'. The approach of improving performance in 'management task' has to be diametrically opposite than improving performance in 'doing task'.

For example, take a simplest example of a management task in a software company, task of a Project manager.  This is the first level of manager in a software company. Observe its variety. It can have multiple combinations of domain ( ERP, BIS, Simple solution, web solution etc), field ( software, support, time and material) customers ( Government department, private customer with small division, language and other possibilities) and size ( small, medium and large).  The combinations are numerous. Even in a single long duration project, the critical element of a task can vary from month 1 to month 6.

Despite this huge variety in the task of project management, software companies try to fit a person to the task of Project Management. Only a strong mentoring, which some companies employ, can help align the person to the requirement of managerial task and improve his performance. If companies do not employ such mentoring practice, it causes double whammy to the company: it leads to demotivation of good performers who cannot understand why they failed, and loss of good managers for the company who may leave the company to save their face.

Because of this unique characteristics of management task, it is more difficult to find good mentors to improve your cognitive performance, if your task is of 'management'. Your second best option is to rely on a coach, who really understands the variety of human beings and can collaborate with right 'function+domain' mentor to provide you a 'wholistic' advice which is both 'correct and practical'.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Stress is due to failure in (un)certainty management system

Most of the advice on stress management is ineffectual because the advice is based on a universal approach to stress management. Much like cancer researchers in 1950's who believed that there was 'one cancer' which can be treated with one universal cure, most of us believe that there is only 'one type of stress'  that can be cured by one approach. However as researchers found out, stress like cancer are of different types, and each type requires different strategy to prevent and cure.

To help you manage stress better, you have to understand that stress is caused by the failure of our certainty management system. It is like sugar control done by pancreas. If the sugar level is more, insulin hormone brings it back to normal. If it is less, glucagon hormone gets it back to normal. It is a homeostasis system.

When you desire an outcome such as passing with 85%, or getting a x job, or reaching your college by 11 am, this outcome is not in your control. You are uncertain if the outcome will indeed happen as expected/desired. When you face this uncertainty, your 'uncertainty level' rises. You feel disoriented. If it rises beyond your assimilation threshold - your capacity to assimilate the uncertainty - you become stressful, or dysfunctional. Stress is a signal that our uncertainty management system is failing to reach homeostasis, much like failing to reach homeostasis of sugar leads to diabetes. 

Dynamics of every-day stress  

You get up in the morning. Everything is fine.
Event 1: You hear the news of your father's deteriorating health on the phone. Possibilities of uncertain outcome goes through your mind. Uncertainty level increases. You go to the office.
Event 2: You come to know from your boss that you have to immediately go and meet one of the customer because of his complaint. Uncertainty pool increases further.
Event 3: And then you get a phone from your home that your son has fared poorly in arithmetic. Uncertainty level increases further.
Stock and flow model of stress***

At this point, let us assume that uncertainty level has gone beyond your assimilation threshold level i.e beyond your capacity to assimilate the uncertainty. Until now you were feeling nervous and disoriented, now this new 'event' makes you dysfunctional. You are 'Stressed'.

Now you tend to do something 'drastic' or 'incomprehensible'. Most of us go into 'action' mode and tend to display anger with our nearest or weakest associates. For instance, you may call up your wife and angrily blame her for not taking care of the house and children. Or  if you meet your subordinate who has put up a conveyance voucher, you will call him and 'blast' him for spending money on taxi instead of using auto-rickshaw.

This happens every day with all of us. Fortunately, after a nice sleep ( which helps you defocus from the outcome) or with some talk with the customer who accepts that it was his mistake, your uncertainty level drops. You feel better. You suddenly get a better perspective of the situation. With uncertainty level lower than your assimilation threshold, you respond to the situation 'appropriately' instead of reacting. For instance, you will try to understand what went wrong with your son's arithmetic paper and help him.

Every event generates uncertainty to a different degree

Basically, uncertain outcome of every event increases your uncertainty level of tub. The degree of increase however depends on two elements:
  • perceived consequences from the undesirable outcome, and 
  • the amount of 'control' you perceive to have over the outcome.
Firstly, the impact of perceived consequences. If you hear about the bomb blast in a local train at 3 pm, your uncertainty level will increase appreciably if you know that your 'son' returns home at the same time. If you know that your son reaches home at 6 pm, your uncertainty level will not increase as much. Please remember, the consequences are 'perceived'. It is your subjective interpretation. More the perceived impact of consequences of event, more it increases the uncertainty level.

Secondly, you have two levers to control the increase of uncertainty level: gathering information about the variables related with outcome and your ability to influence the outcome. For instance, once you talk to the customer and gather information  of what has caused the complaint, you know what can be done to address the outcome. This reduces the level of uncertainty tub. If you can take immediate 'action' to control the customer complaint, it will further reduce uncertainty level in the tub. On the other hand, if your 'ability to act' depends on your 'organisational policies'. If you are not sure of your boss's approval, you uncertainty level, instead of decreasing, may increase further.

By gathering information about the uncertainty, you can generate less uncertainty. For instance, travel to another city always increases the uncertainty level. But with more experience of traveling, as you gather more info about the city and schedules, your uncertainty level does not increase to the same level. In other words, expertise and experience of the outcome increases your uncertainty level by a lesser degree. That is why you may be more stressful in arranging 'birthday event' for your child (because you are not aware of it), than managing a 'global event' of your product launch ( of which you are expert)

Your response to the event depends on your assimilation capacity ( threshold level)

As you would have understood from the above example, a single event may not make you dysfunctional, because uncertainty is a 'stock' element, the level in the tub. At an event level, uncertainty is a transient flow. Only when your 'uncertainty stock' crosses your assimilation threshold, you lose control of your self and react disproportionately to the event. You may even get surprised by the 'extent' of your anger or 'reaction' at such times. This is what is meant when we say that 'the small event was the last straw on the camel's back'.

Each of us have a capacity to bear 'x' level of uncertainty. We call this level as the threshold level because it represents our mental capacity to withstand uncertainty in our lives. This 'x' level is essentially determined by our adopted beliefs of outcomes and the 'sense of direction' in our lives. 


As you would have deduced from the above discussion, you require 3 different strategies to manage your stress:

1. Strategy to manage inflow/outflow of uncertainty 

Every uncertain event will increase the level of uncertainty tub. You can only reduce the degree of increase. Depending on the 'event' you have to devise different strategies.

Only information, not data, will reduce your uncertainty level of an event. Internet websites only provide 'data', that is why it is not helpful in such situation! That is why, it is more helpful to call up your distant car-fanatic friend, when you are buying a car. Or finding a friend, who has recently bought a car, may also be more useful.

If you recognise your limitations of knowledge and are willing to seek advice from others, it will help you maintain your uncertainty level of an event. Given our 'limitation' of understanding every event, it  is prudent to accept that 'we cannot know everything'.

2. Strategy to enhance your assimilation threshold ( your capacity to bear uncertainty)

Spiritual Guru's offer this approach as a universal cure for managing stress by advocating meditation. However, after understanding the stock and flow model of stress, you will appreciate that managing stress as 'stock of uncertainty' is not enough; you also have to manage the 'inflow' and 'outflow' of uncertainty every day.

Although this is a more durable and solid approach to manage your stress, it also demands far more time, effort and commitment from your side to practice and perfect it than the first approach. In other words, you need time on your side to make this work. You cannot manage the stress of your next month's exam, by using this method.

3. Strategy to mitigate the effect of accumulated uncertainty 

Despite initiating the strategies of controlling inflow/outflow and managing the assimilation threshold,  you will accumulate lot of stress daily until you become 'master' in using the two approaches. You cannot wait until you learn, because the accumulated stress affects your daily life in two ways. You need to find your way of mitigating this impact.

One, you need to become sensitive to your ' daily increase in uncertainty level' ( especially when it is closer to your threshold level) and postpone the critical decisions until you recover to your 'normal level'. When your uncertainty level is closer to your threshold, you become over-sensitive to certain aspects and ignore other important aspects of a situation. It is prudent to wait and delay such critical decisions, especially decisions like choosing a life partner, or shifting a job.

Second, accumulated stress starts impacting our body. Chronic ailments of diabetes, BP and cardiac are correlated with high stress levels for a long time. It is therefore necessary to 'dissolve' this stress every day, either through yoga, exercise or some other 'physical method'. As impact of accumulated stress on body is irreversible, it is extremely critical to mitigate this effect.

I know that more detailed discussion on each of the above strategies will be required later to help you manage your stress. I however hope that this overall framework of Stock and flow model of stress will help you 'relook' at Stress management in a far more meaningful and practical way.

*** This "Stock and flow model of stress' is based on three principles
1.  Self control as a limited resource model enunciated by Mark Muraven, Dianne M. Tice, and Roy F. Baumeister
2.  Concept of assimilation capacity enunciated by Daryl Conner
3. Systems thinking concept of 'threshold' or 'tipping point' 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Lessons from the cognitive work path of Manmohan Singh

As knowledge workers, we already face many difficultiesI read this account of Manmohan Singh's career graph in October 2011 article of The Caravan by Vinod Jose. This has been written on the basis of accounts gathered over the course of four months of research that included lengthy interviews with more than 40 people who have known and worked closely with Manmohan Singh ( MS) in his private and public life during the last half-century. 

By donning the hat of  'career researcher', here are my six lessons of what corporate individuals can learn from the story. 

1. Change requires a 'pain' strong enough for everyone to rally around on one agenda

See the background that triggered the biggest change in 1991.

India’s debt to foreign lenders had nearly doubled between 1985 and 1991, and a series of external shocks—including the sudden spike in oil prices that accompanied the Gulf War—had reduced India’s foreign currency reserves to less than the amount required to finance two weeks of imports.

The government was so desperate to raise funds that it had pawned 20 tonnes of gold confiscated from smugglers, which were secretly shipped to the Union Bank of Switzerland in exchange for $200 million. When that proved insufficient, another 47 tonnes from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) were sent to England and Japan to secure loans worth an additional $405 million.In a country where pawning the family jewellery would be an act of final desperation, the sense of alarm was palpable.

Learning for CXO's: More radical change requires more intense pain to justify the change. Please remember this when initiating any change in your organisations. 

2. To change the system, you have be 'part of the system'

MS had been working in different ministeries for 20 years, before he took over the role of Finance Minister in 1991. MS had authored the current Five-Year Plan when he was deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, and he was implementing policies in 1991 which were totally contradictory to his earlier plan. When the question of this apparent contradiction was first raised in June 1991, at Singh’s first press conference as finance minister, his response was unguarded: “I agree that I had played a role in getting the economy into a mess, and now I want to play a role in getting the economy out of the mess.”

Learning for CXO's: Thorough understanding of 'as-is' state of what the Government did before 1991 helped MS to move to the new 'to-be' state much more quickly. The same capability is required to ensure successful change in organisations. 

3. System picks you when your profile suits the need

In both the instances, MS was chosen because of the curious situational factors, not because he was the first choice.

Narsimha Rao picked MS in 1991 because it perfectly matched his need of a good finance minister who will help India get out of the trouble.Rao needed a finance minister who satisfied three criteria: he needed a skilled economist to conduct negotiations with the international financial institutions; second, in the event of a backlash against the radical policy changes, an ‘outsider’ would be easier to dismiss from the cabinet; and third, if the new finance minister was successful, he still wouldn’t pose any threat to Rao’s own position in the party. MS matched these three criteria.

Sonia Gandhi picked MS for PM in 2004, because his profile fitted the need of hour: Cognitive architect of 1991 liberalisation, the image of technocrat ( substantiated by the inability to even win the almost sure seat in 1999) that gave a good public branding, and above all the non-political humble background that ensured loyalty.

Learning: As you would have observed in the above case, even MS's liabilities became assets for the position.  If you aspire to reach the top of such a complex system, it is more prudent to 'be' what you are, along with your plusses and minuses, rather than trying to change to something else. Do not get tempted by self-help Guru's. 

4.Cognitive growth is important than ideology when one is learning
MS worked under different mentors and bosses without getting confused with their 'ideology'. He worked with with P.N. Haksar, who went against Indira Gandhi in Pre-Emergency, continued with PN Dhar, who had succeeded Haksar, RK Dhawan, an intimate of Sanjay Gandhi. When Indira was ejected and the Janata Party came to power, Singh worked closely with HM Patel, whose position was almost diametrically opposed to that of Dhawan. His capacity to adapt to shifting political winds was nicely captured by The Times of India in a 1991 editorial: “Manmohan Singh was perfectly happy with the garibi hatao phase of Mrs Gandhi, then with the Emergency, then with the Janata Party, then with the return of Mrs Gandhi.  

Learning: This sounds 'atypical' with the image of MS, but this is an ideal way to maximise the development of competencies of your cognitive talent in the phase II.

5. Behaviour is always contextual; do not get confused with preconceived biases

P V Narsimha Rao's indecisiveness was known to the world. However, this story so clearly shows how wrong we were.

PV, who was known to be so indecisive—at cabinet committee meetings he couldn’t even decide between tea and coffee—was surprisingly sure that India had to deregulate and open its markets, and he gave Manmohan the crucial confidence to make those moves.

When MS told PV that the country immediately needed a huge standby loan of at least $5 billion, “There was no ambiguity in Rao’s mind,” the senior secretary recalled. “He was more convinced than Manmohan Singh.” Rao approved Singh’s proposal on the spot.

Learning: Our behaviour is determined by the situation. We are decisive in certain situation, and indecisive in others. Our traits are contextual. Even honesty, motivation, confidence are contextual traits

6. Transition from one role to another is the most difficult phase to negotiate   

See the initial examples of transition that MS went through in 1991 after becoming a FM ( after being in Government for 20 years):

a. “During that month of budget preparation, the Cabinet Committee for Political Affairs met almost every day,” the senior secretary told me. “Manmohan was so indecisive and nervous that Rao ended up doing most of the talking and convincing the others himself.”

b. Singh’s budget, which would come to symbolise the unleashing of the Indian economy, met with a cold reception within the Congress party. At a meeting after the budget speech to discuss the new economic policies, a sizable crowd of MPs vented their outrage. They were certain that slashing fertiliser subsidies, among other measures, would spell doom at the polls. “There was considerable unrest in the Congress ranks,” a CWC member and former cabinet minister told me. “There were as many as 63 backbenchers who spoke against Manmohan. PV really had to save him in that meeting.” 

Learning: In the early days of transition from one job to another, either you are changing from programmer to PM, or GM to VP or VP to CEO, the transition is the most difficult phase to negotiate where maximum derailments occur. Seek support during this period.

Do you want to add anything here?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Unfolding process of Cognitive talent

What is talent 

As human beings, we use our five senses, our body muscles, and our cognitive abilities - combination of all three in different proportion - to perform a task. Initially our performance in  a task is average. If we however practice it repeatedly, slowly and surely, we manage to acquire a talent in performing that task. Talent is not a 'potential' ability; it is a demonstrated ability in a person who can replicate the performance of a task  consistently in different situations.

A singer primarily uses his sense of 'hearing' along with his body muscle of 'vocal chord' to sing. His task is to sing. A sportsman, like a batsman, primarily uses his hand/body movements to coordinate with his ' visual sense' of judging the ball's trajectory. His task is batting. An innovator primarily uses his 'cognitive abilities' to rearrange the earlier thoughts of innovators along with his psychomotor skills to create a new engine, a computer or just draft a new idea. His task is innovating an engine. All three performers use all three sets of abilities, but the emphasis on each of the ability is varied. 

We therefore call dancer as an Aesthetic performer (because he primarily uses his five aesthetic senses), sportsman as a Psychomotor performer (because he primarily uses his finely honed muscle movements) and knowledge worker as Cognitive performer (because he primarily uses his cognitive ability to categorise data and correlate with other unlinked categories).

A&P performers can easily 'name' a task ( which they want to excel and convert it into a talent),  such as dancing, painting or playing cricket, to identify their talent zone. Cognitive performers, on the other hand, find it difficult to identify their task because cognitive task is multi-dimensional.

What is cognitive talent/task

In knowledge work, a cognitive task requires a combination of
- Subject Knowledge in specialities and sub specialities such as mechanical engineering ( not just engineering) or civil law (not just law)
- Domain Knowledge about domains such as manufacturing, banking, software, and
- Accompanying set of Skills based on the type of jobs such as front end jobs like sales and service and back-end jobs like  manufacturing, design or quality.

Unlike singe-dimensional tasks in aesthetic and psychomotor fields, cognitive task in knowledge work is multi-dimensional. It demands a combination of subject knowledge, domain knowledge and accompanying skills. Because of this multi-dimensionality, knowledge work exists in multiple varieties.

Unfolding of Cognitive talent

Talent unfolding process of A&P performer is well known and understood by researchers. Cognitive/knowledge performers can use this knowledge to guide them. Both A&P performer and cognitive performer use four phases of talent unfolding, although the duration and challenges faced in each of them differ widely. If you observe these differences closely, you will be able to anticipate the challenges better if you are a cognitive performer.

1. Talent exploration of A&P performer versus Ability exploration of cognitive/knowledge performer 

Because of uni-dimensional nature of task, A&P performer can chose his talent zone, say of dancing, at the age of 5, because the task of dancing at the age of 5 remains same when he becomes 25. His talent exploration phase commences at the age of 5-7 and continues for next 4/5 years to explore different options.

For cognitive performer, his cognitive ability exploration starts at the age of 6 and continues till the age of 22. Slowly and surely, he funnels his resources on a narrower area to increase his chances of developing his talent. For instance, by the end of high school, he chooses to focus on a narrow area of engineering or accounts. Later he may continue to narrow down the focus further, by say choosing to do a post graduation in a specific technology, or a course in law.

Knowledge about Data to Knowledge conversion will go a long way in helping a cognitive performer in making smart choices and even to guide him better in identifying and nurturing his abilities.

2. Talent development of A&P versus Competency development of cognitive/knowledge performer 

Once the talent (either of piano or violin) is decided at the end of Talent exploration phase, A&P performer starts developing his talent from the age of 9-10 and commits all his efforts and time in developing his talent for next 6-10 years. He gets all the necessary help from his coaches, support from parents, to develop all the necessary skills to become the top class in his talent.

Cognitive performer, on the other hand, choses a task or job at the end of Ability exploration phase. While choosing his job, he unwittingly choses his domain. The domain chosen could be automobiles, Image processing or software. Even if a person choses to join a BPO, he works in a specific domain, such as mobile call handling or financial products selling.  

While engaging in a task/job, cognitive performer converts his abilities into competency. In a competency, an individual has to synthesise his subject knowledge, domain knowledge, and develop accompanying skills required to perform the task. An engineer may join sales department of a Engineering and construction company and develop his Sales competency, or a CA may join a MIS department and develop his competency in 'Management decision making'.

While A&P performer takes long time ( 8-10 years) to develop his uni-dimensional talent, competency development takes shorter time frame of 2-3 years. Unlike A&P performer, cognitive performer gets no assistance from anyone either to identify the gap in the skill or to fill the gap quickly. For instance, many cognitive performers suffer poorly in their task due to lack of basic skill of perception-management.

As such, process of competency development is not well understood, and neither coaches are used as guide. This often lead to several changes in the work-path of a cognitive performer. This is why you see many cognitive performers change many jobs in the first part of their work-life: sales engineers becoming design engineers, software engineers leaving software, or salesman moving from selling medicines to selling shampoos.

Some cognitive performers, who succeed in their first task, develop multiple competencies one after another. The example of Noble Prize winner, Venkatram Ramkrishnan, depicts this development of multiple competencies vividly.

Some cognitive performers, though, find their their unique competency quickly and, instead of developing another competency, develop the same in a focussed manner.  Like A&P performers, they engage in Talent development.  I know of many Sales professionals, for example, who have spend considerable part of their lives in developing their Sales competency into an exceptional talent. Management consultants, trainers, Consultants in Engineering, Lawyers, Software and hardware engineers are some other examples. They are the happier lot of cognitive performers because they have found their element. 

3. Talent expression phase of A&P versus Competency convergence of Cognitive/Knowledge performer

For A&P performer, this is the stage where they express their uniqueness. Till now they were involved in the technical mastery of their talent area, be it violin or piano or chess. At this stage, they 'leave behind' all the technical mastery in their armory, and develop their own 'style' or 'innovation', which is truly unique.

Some cognitive performers use their multiple competencies to find an area where they can use all their developed competencies. They find a task where, everything they have achieved in life, becomes useful to them in their new task. This is converging all the competencies together in one task. I have met many corporate professionals who do not reach this phase at all.

4. Talent embedding phase 

This phase is common to both A&P and cognitive performers. Till this phase, the talent was an 'end' for which all their activities and decisions were meant to support. In this phase, they find a purpose or value where their talent becomes a 'means' to achieve the 'higher end'. Talent, instead of leading, becomes the follower. Talent is embedded in the lives of the performers. Nandan Nilekani's work as UAID Head is one such example.


If you are a cognitive/knowledge performer, this is what is important to be remembered:

1. Ability Exploration: As compared to 4-5 years for A&P performers, your ability exploration phase is about 20 years long. Unlike A&P performer, you do not have to commit to a path early. That is both bane or a boon, depending how you use this period. In other words, to capitalise on the situation, you have to be one step ahead of the unfolding process.

2. Competency ( or talent) Development: Like A&P performers, you can focus on one unique competency and convert it into a talent. However, you also have another option. You can develop 2/3 major competencies in the next 10 years of life, provided you know how to do it.

Unlike A&P performer, you have lot of constraints though. During this phase, A&P has no family responsibilities. He also gets huge teaching/coaching support to develop his talent. On both counts, you have a handicap. You have to learn to develop competencies within your given constraints. That is why, you have to be one step ahead of the unfolding process. 

3. Competency convergence and talent embedding

Do not chase the illusive 'talent', as books seem to tell you. Just focus on 'converging your competencies'. If you are one step ahead of the unfolding process, you can jump this stage and move to the stage of talent embedding.

If you remain behind the unfolding process, you are constantly chasing, trying to control the damage. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Parenting in a Montessori way

Montessori's view of child is so refreshingly simple and insightful that if you could practice those principles at home it will hugely benefit your child. So here are seven ideas that can be used to develop your child ( if he or she is less than 6 years).

1. Help the child to do his own activities.
Before this can be done, it is important to arrange important artifacts, which the child uses, to suit the child's size. For instance, keep the child's toothpaste and toothbrush at the height where he can easily reach. Keep her clothes in a 'separate shelf' which is compatible to her height. ( You will be surprised to see that the child loves order, especially at 3) Use child's commode seat in the bathroom. Get him tools that match with his size, such as spoon and fork.

Once the infrastructure is set in, let the child do activities by herself. If the child is willing to dress himself, let him do. If the child is willing to eat by herself, that is a better option. Although these activities take too long a time, and often create lot of mess, the trouble is worth the effort.

This is helpful in two ways. One, it allows the child to co-ordinate his hands and body easily. Mastering this coordination of body is an important milestone in the child's development. ( if you watch a mentally handicapped child, you will realise the importance of promoting child's body-coordination). Two, it makes the child independent.

2. Engage child in actual physical games,not virtual games:
Engage in activities where his body coordination is important, for instance climbing the slide. As coming down the steps is more difficult than climbing the stairs, coach the child to do on her own. Let the child commit mistakes infront of you, rather than behind you. In the same way, help the child to engage in difficult games, such as rope climbing. This hastens the body coordination of the child.

4. Use toys that compel child to engage with it actively.
Engaging a child in a 'purposeful' activity ( that makes the child understand the end of the activity) helps the child to focus his wandering attention and apply his intelligence and 'body coordination' together, which is another Montessori principle of developing your child.
For instance, use picture puzzles of animals so that the child can 'make the animal' by fitting different pieces.Even while taking a balloon, take 'empty' balloon and teach child to fill 'air' by mouth. Children typically like to 'color'. Provide him all the material to colour and paint. If you observe your child really 'concentrating' in painting ( or any of his activity), leave him alone for as long as he wishes.
Because of the above principle, there are many 'do nots'. For instance, avoid using passive toys like cars, because they are not 'purposeful'; they can be dropped at any moment by the child. Even TV watching is very passive and should be discouraged by using innovative tricks. Cartoons, by the way, needs to be avoided because it tends to promote imagination, before the mind is 'developed'. This in turn introduces child in a new pattern of engaging in 'fantasies'.

5. Respect the child's identity:
Listen to the child by being in child's shoes. For instance, do not feed child until she says she is 'hungry'. Force feeding at a fixed time prevents the child to 'sense' her hunger.
If you have promised something, please keep the promise until a pattern is set in. If you can't bring him something due to lack of money, be sure to 'explain' it. Children surprisingly understand the constraint of money better than we think, i have found.
Because of the choice given to child in Montessori to do ( or not to do) an activity, child's identity gets created slowly in Montessori House of children. I have heard of a child in a Montessori, who refused to do any activity in a school for one year. And yet after 3 years, he was a normal child.

6. Use every instance to enrich child's vocabulary:
Child at the age of 3 is fascinated with language. Child however understands word through sounds ( i.e phonetically), not through alphabets. Therefore do not hasten to teach child to 'spell' the word; instead offer her the 'sound of words' whenever practical. Try to categorise words in sections, because that helps child. For instance, introduce 'kitchen' words separately than 'bathroom words'. Words help child to classify objects and make sense of the chaotic impressions that are bombarding him.
Montessori method introduces language phonetically. Only after the child can replicate the sound of words, alphabets are introduced. And then grammar is introduced.

7. Introduce numbers when child shows inclination:
Below 5, the absorbent mind of child absorbs concepts as 'concretes'. Numbers are concepts. Therefore always introduce numbers through concrete instances, like 1 marble or 2 marble. Both marbles should look same. Child cannot 'understand' that the same number is applicable to chocolate, kilometer, or money. Even when additions have to be shown, add 1 marble+ 2 marble and show it as 3 marbles. Montessori uses spindle rods to introduce the concept of counting and uses 'beads' to help counting.

Every child is distinct, and therefore you will have to adapt the above ideas accordingly for your child. If you have a good Montessori House of Children near your house, it is a good idea to take help of a Montessorian in devising specific strategies for developing your child. For children who are above-average curious or active, or who tend to listen to adults meekly, a Montessorian is required to adopt a different style and method.

Please remember that these ideas are not to make your child more intelligent. Intelligence definitely assists development, but at this young age, it may also bypass it. Rewards and punishments are powerful tools of development, but which require large space to set the context. We have therefore not dealt with it here.

Friday, August 12, 2011

You are unlucky if you have cognitive talents

In a research findings@ of 120 talented individuals sampled from six fields comprising aesthetic fields like music and sculpting, psychomotor sports fields like tennis and swimming, and cognitive fields like mathematics and medicine, 20 most talented individuals from each of these field were asked questions about acquiring their extraordinary talents over a period of 20 odd years. Their parents and teachers were also interviewed to corroborate the answers.

The research findings brought out many interesting, and sometimes counter-intuitive conclusions, such as 'extraordinary talents are not spotted at an early age to succeed'.Infact, none of the 120 talented individuals, not even the musicians and sportsman, in the sample were child prodigies or were discovered due to their 'extraordinary' talent.

But more than the generic findings, the 3 observations on nurturing cognitive talent versus other talents clearly brings out the huge challenges that you knowledge workers - programmers, engineers, managers, chartered accountants, lawyers, medical consultants - have to surmount in 'identifying and nurturing your cognitive talent'.

1. While development of aesthetic and psychomotor talents is visible, development of cognitive talent is invisible: If you are good in Music,dance or sports, your ability is visible to all, even to a layman. This helps friends and family members to automatically recognise these talented children as 'fast learners' and use the surrounding eco-system of teachers, competitions and social recognition to initiate the cycle of learning at an early age.

In contrast to this, for cognitive performers such as in mathematics and medicine, almost all of the action takes place in their minds. Nothing is visible to others. Until some expert teacher in that specific subject recognises the huge talent, say after solving a 'mathematical problem', the talent remains 'unrecognised' and therefore 'not encouraged'. The virtuous cycle of learning starts late.

2. While aesthetic and psychomotor talents, due to their nature, are identified at an early age, cognitive talents are identified very late: Because their talents depend on 'senses' and coordination of muscles, the musicians in the above sample began their formal studies in music by the age of 6 and the sportsman by the age of 7. This helps the individuals with aesthetic and psychomotor talents to explore and engage early in lives and produce demonstrable and objectively verifiable 'work' by the age of 11-12. This in turn provides them the necessary confidence to 'choose' their talent area, which in turn helps them invest huge time and energy on one 'talent', further increasing the probability of success.

In contrast, the mathematicians in the above sample began their formal studies in mathematics by the age of 13. Because they start late they cannot produce any demonstrable and verifiable work quickly. This delay in 'focusing' on one talent path splinters their time and attention, which further delays their learning on their talent area.

You may think that students with high IQ ( IQ above 160) can choose their talent field easily. But that is not true. A book by Ruth Feldman on these high IQ 'Quiz Kids' spells out the difficulties these cognitive performers face in 'choosing their talent path'.

3. Trajectory of cognitive talent development makes it difficult for cognitive performers to nurture their talent:

Because the talent of musicians and sportsman is recognised early, by the age of 20, they are spending 4-6 years per day on nurturing their talent in the second phase of their learning, perfecting their talent. Their parents provide the monetary support for talent development, while different type of teachers and coaches actively help them to sharpen their talents.

In contrast, trajectory of cognitive performers starts late. This means that even when cognitive performers have identified their talent area, they cannot get the required time to practice, because other responsibilities - such as earning for oneself - come in the forefront. The hormones of adolescence further derails their talent development journey by distracting their mind and time.

Parental support, by that age, is practically absent due to societal factors. Teacher support is available for 'researchers' who are doing Phds in universities, but for other cognitive performers, even this support is non-existent. Even the companies, who stand to gain the maximum from their talent, do not actively support the development of their cognitive talent, because it does not benefit them directly.
Isn't this surprising? In aesthetic and psychomotor fields, talent development is understood well enough and one can use also the eco-system to sharpen one's talent.

But if you are a cognitive performer ( such as programmers, managers, sales individuals, consultants, advertising professionals, lawyers and practicing medical consultants) which perhaps constitute 70-80% of the performers in a population, you are simply unlucky. Neither you have the knowledge ( of training methods and processes required to identify and nurture the talent), nor do you have the supporting eco-system ( competitions, coaches and training time) to help you identify and sharpen your talent.

But if you are working in cognitive domains, what can you do? At least, you could start at the beginning. Removing the confusion around the word 'talent' could be the first step. In this blog, we shall describe the knowledge and the eco-system that you could use to develop your cognitive talents.

@ Benjamin Bloom: Developing talent in young people

Friday, July 29, 2011

Do you have the skill set of a Manager?

Madhukar was very happy when he got promoted as a Manager of a bank branch. He had waited for it very long and was already planning to take many initiatives in the branch. After six months, Madhukar was so unhappy with the job that he sought for a change.

This phenomenon is so common in organizations that HR executives call this a double jeopardy for an organisation. They say " When we promote a good performer, we lose a good asset and acquire a liability ( a bad manager)'. It is a total loss for the organisation.

Recently i read about Dilip Vengsarkar's loss of elections to head Mumbai Cricket Association- MCA.Following issues were brought forth in the various articles: Can cricketers become good cricket administrators? Can cricket administrator do a good job without knowledge of cricket? It is the same question we face in organisations: Can a good sales performer become a good sales manager? Can one become sales manager without any skill of selling a product?

First difference is between the skill-set of cricketer and administrator. I have used Sanjay Dixit's article here to list the skill-set of cricketer and cricket administrator. A Test cricketer learns the art of batsmanship, the nuances of bowling, the finer aspects of cricketing strategy and all about the modern developments in training methodology. A cricket administrator has to learn the politics of managing different stakeholders, the legal complications involved in the job, the financial aspects, Income Tax and Service Tax issues, and liaison with various agencies. As the cricketer has no opportunity to learn these skills while playing cricket, he is a novice in using these skills. He is more than likely to fail as a cricket administrator !

Some cricketers, on the other hand, pronounced Mumbai cricket dead after Dilip Vengsarkar lost the elections. Does this mean that sportsmen alone can do a great job of running an association? A good example to contradict this view is of S K Wankhede who was MCA's president during the best of Mumbai's cricketing years. He was not a cricketer, much less a Test player. Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium was his handiwork. He spawned a system in which the cricketers did the specialized jobs, such as coaching and selections and he promoted a fair system where only the best could represent Bombay.

Options for learning the job of manager

What is the lesson from the above story? Both skills are necessary - the skill of administration and the skill of nurturing cricketing talent - to head a cricket association. What can you do?

If you are a cricketer, for instance, what options do you have to become a cricket association's head? You have to acknowledge the skill you do not have, and find someone else in the team who has the complementary set of skill, the skill of administration. This is one option. However, if administrative part of job generates the 'power' required to perform the full role, you cannot handover that part of job to someone else without jeopardising your basic role. In other words, some parts of job cannot be 'delegated' to someone as easily because it sacrifices the integral component of the role.

This happened with Madhukar. He tried to delegate the job of 'man-management' to his deputy in his branch, but that slowly robbed him off all the power he required to perform his role of 'branch manager'. At the end of six months, he knew he cannot function effectively as a branch manager, even though his understanding of banking industry and customers ( business domain) was bringing more business to his branch. However, if Madukar was in Army, he would not have faced any such problem. Army is a very hierarchical organisation with clear differentiation of superior and subordinate. Managerial rule-set of Army is different than in Madhukar's bank. Managerial rule-set determines how things are done in an organisation, how performance is monitored and disciplined, how power is displayed and how 'authority' and 'knowledge' are intertwined in an organisation.

In other words, Madhukar failed as a Manager, because his option of delegating part of his job did not 'match' with the managerial rule-set of his bank. As you would have guessed, this managerial rule-set of organisation is not written explicitly in any manual. One has to be skillful in 'inferring' this rule-set from working in an organisation. Often individuals fail in managerial roles, because they cannot 'read' this managerial rule-set and therefore misalign with the organisation ! An experienced sales manager, moving to another organisation, in the same industry ( which means he has the same domain knowledge of the product and industry) may also fail because he could not align with the implicit managerial rule-set of the new organisation.

Please note that we are here discussing about the first level of manager who synthesises the work of 'doers'. ( Please read my blog of 'Paradox of doers' of 4 Aug 2006 to understand the characteristics of doers) More than skill-set, it is the mind-set of Manager which is very difficult to adopt for a performer when he is getting promoted. Job of Manager is to 'synthesise' the task output of different performers, like a orchestra conductor who synthesises the instruments of different musicians. The job of manager is therefore 'ends-driven', while the job of performer is 'means-driven'. For a performer, this orientation is very difficult to change because it means ignoring talent if need be, sacrificing quality when the time is critical, and promoting interdependent working instead of independent working.

What can you do?

If you are a performer - be in programming, design or sales - and you do want to become a manager in your function, plan for it. Preparation is helpful, because it reduces the 'surprises' and gives you more time to respond.

First, understand the differences in skill-set of your current role and the manager. If you do not know it, talk with HR person. Because managerial positions are defined differently in every company, it is necessary to understand the precise role in your company. Do not use book definitions of managerial roles. Secondly, get introduced to some of the skill-sets even though one cannot learn them by 'reading' a book about them. Talking with some mentor is useful. Thirdly, practice some skills, if possible. For instance, skills of man-management cannot be learnt only by reading a book of 'how to delegate'. It requires practice. Seek support of mentors or coaches to do the practice. Fourthly, in a skill-set, focus only on a particular aspect of the skill which you think may be difficult for you. For instance, if you think that 'confronting your subordinates on their lack of performance' is a big challenge for you, learn that specific skill.Fifthly, understand the mind-set required by talking with a manager. Mind-set cannot be adopted just by listening to someone, but it helps to become aware of the requirements. Sixthly, find a manager-mentor or coach and interact with him very often in the initial transition period to fine-tune your approach and actions. Planning alone is never enough.

Friday, July 22, 2011

How to make experience count? (Version 2)

(I am writing this blog again, because of the feedback i have got on my last blog. Many readers told me that they found it very difficult to 'apply' the ideas of 'deliberate practice' research that i talked in the blog. So here is another attempt.)

Typically, when we learn something new, we go through the learning phase and try hard until we master the activities well enough. For instance, take the example of driving. Until we learn to drive in the traffic, drive up on slopes while stopping, and can park well in small paces, we practice hard. As soon as we reach that stage, which the researchers claim to happen in approximately 50 hours of practice, we stop working on it further. We reach our comfort zone. That happens with our job experience too. Be it presenting to the customers, persuading a difficult subordinate, or convincing the superior on a tough plan; we all learn enough to do the tasks reasonably well, and then remain at that level. That is our comfort zone. And once we reach that comfort zone, we just go through the paces.We stop learning from our experience, because we stop practicing.

Researchers(1) however have found that the excellent performance - whether in sports, music, surgery or writing - is produced only when one goes beyond this comfort zone and practices deliberately. Contrary to the popular belief, it is not innate talent that produces excellence; it is this 'deliberate practice'. Despite the huge talent of Tiger Woods, for instance, he could achieve his excellence only after he practiced deliberately for 10,000 hours ( which researchers call as 10 year rule). His innate talent did not help him reduce the hours of deliberate practice; instead it helped him start early in his practice. In other words, excellence is produced through experience of a deliberate type. It is the way performers practice, the areas they practice that produces excellence.

For corporate professionals, who develop only through experience, learning the tools of deliberate practice is not just necessary; it is almost essential. Let us understand how to use this research for excelling in corporate world.

Excellent performers, be in chess, surgery, writing or sports and music follow these four rules that are useful for corporate professionals:

1. Excellent performers know their 'areas' of practice
: Excellence is produced not by practicing on anything: they practice very very specific things. Often, it is very different than what is considered typical. For instance, expert violinist concentrate on practicing 'solo' instead of performing in actual orchestra or playing with colleagues. Sports person work more on off-the-game routines instead of getting match practice ! Expert cooks practice on the activities 'before' cooking, not on the activities 'during' cooking.

Corporate professionals must find their 'areas of practice' to become better programmers, sales managers, design engineers or financial analysts. For instance, application developers have to practice understanding 'non functional' requirements of an application before they start coding. Every individual needs to find his 'areas of practice'. For instance, a sales professional may need more practice on 'understanding customer specs', while another sales professional may need more practice on 'convincing customers'. Coaches and mentors are helpful in identifying the right areas of practice.

2. Excellent performers practice for the future role, not just for the current position: In other words, excellent performers do not wait for the problem to come to them.They anticipate the next mountain to climb, and prepare themselves for it by practicing before hand. If you have watched the career of Rafael Nadal, you would have observed the application of this rule.

I am always surprised to see that corporate professionals miss this rule more often than not. Even when they are waiting for promotion ( developer to module leader, or sales officer to sales manager) they rarely think through and work on practicing the new role before hand. They just walk into the new role unprepared, suffer a performance dip and spend disproportionate time and effort to undo the damage.

3. Excellent performers perceive more than average performers: Excellent performers do not have high memory to perceive more. When chess pieces were kept randomly, researchers found that excellent chess players remembered only 7-9 positions of chess pieces, which was similar to average chess players. But if the board of a actual live game was shown, excellent chess players remembered much more ( > 20 positions) than average chess players ( about 10). In other words, excellent chess players had higher 'long term working memory' because their mental model remembered the 'interactions of pieces'. Because excellent performers perceive more, they react faster, they notice smaller differences, observe warning signals faster than average performers.

The same is true of Jack Welch or Jeff Immelt. They are known for their fast reflexes and reading between the lines. But they also perceive more things because their mental models of 'business elements' ( how industry functions) and 'management elements' ( how their company functions) is more accurate ( and therefore reflects as-is reality better) than average performers. Business element model is also called as domain model in general parlance. Building this domain model and perfecting it regularly is therefore a critical practice for becoming a top class corporate professional.

Depending on one's hierarchy, every top corporate professional has a mental model of both - domain and management - to function excellently. A highly effective project manager, for instance, also has a rich working model of 'project management' to manage a project effectively!

4. Excellent performers seek constant and quick feedback to improve: Without quality feedback, there is no improvement. This is one of the basic rules that differentiates average from excellent performers. In sports and music, getting objective feedback is possible, even though difficult.

In the knowledge work of corporate professionals this is even more difficult. At lower heirarchy, one can innovatively seek feedback from colleagues, superiors, or even through usage of HR tools. I know of a senior manager in a multinational company who seeks feedback from his subordinates every quarter in a formal setting. But at higher levels, getting feedback is almost impossible without learning 'meta-cognition'- it is the ability to see yourself performing, while you are performing. Coaches can be helpful not only in offering accurate feedback, but also in designing 'crucibles' that will offer better quality feedback.

Are you using these four rules in making your experience count?

(1) Dr Anders Ericsson's work is described in many of his books. For a short summary, read this article.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How to make your experience count?

One often assumes that experience will automatically create an expertise that will become difficult to replace. However you would have also met professionals whose 10 years of experience is 1 year multiplied by 10 years ! What differentiates the two professionals?

Dr Anders Ericsson's exhaustive work on expert performers helps us understand what can be done. He has discovered that innate talent does not cause excellent performance; instead it is achieved only through conscious practice, what he calls as 'deliberate practice'. Deliberate practice is a kind of training in which the person concentrates on one item at a time, constantly listens to the feedback, and then corrects himself. This is done continuously. His 900 page book cites cases of excellent performers from varied professions: surgery, music, firefighting to computer programming. If you have limited time, you could read his short article.

Here are four actions you can take to make your experience count ( all four actions are not independent, but co-related):

1. Break your objective of gaining 'expertise' into different behaviours: If you are a project manager, for instance, bifurcate your expertise into small and manageable outcomes such as Manage customers and Manage internal team. Bifurcate these outcomes into visible behaviours, such as 'Confront customers when customer fails to meet his side of expectations' or 'Understand customer's business' etc. If you are a design engineer, you may bifurcate into 'Capture customer requirements correctly' and ' Understand the limitations of technology-in-use'

2. Find time to engage in deliberate practice of this behaviour: Dr Ericcson has found that uni-dimensional performers like violinists spend at least 10 hours every week. For a multi-dimensional performer like a corporate professional, who is working on many different 'skill sets', this time limit may not be relevant. What is however important to remember is that developing expertise requires practice every day with 'concentration'.

Dr Anderson discovered that violinists took a nap after lunch. "The argument they made," says Ericsson, "was that the real constraint on how much you could practise was not the number of hours in the day, but the number of hours in the day you could sustain full concentration. If you couldn't sustain your concentration, you were wasting your time."

For a corporate professional who is working on numerous items simultaneously ( multi-tasking is supposed to be an in-thing today!), this is important to remember because he will have to find time to concentrate only only on 'one item'.

3. Set up careful experiments to practice Unless corporate professional, like a golf player, learns to set up 'experiments' to practice different shots from the same location, he cannot learn.

If a corporate professional is successful say in negotiating with customers, the corporate professional has to find 'why he is successful' to know 'the various actions he unconsciously does' to succeed in negotiations. He won't find this until he experiments with different 'variables'. If he does not experiment, he may 'fail' one day not knowing 'what went wrong'. If he experiments and knows why, he can replicate his success 'confidently' in different settings and situations. Like a expert performer, he can even do 'damage control' when the negotiation seems to be lost.

4. Get constant feedback on your actions ( behaviour) to correct and improve. Getting quick and accurate feedback is the most difficult task in a corporate setting, because there are too many variables 'on the table' in a complex corporate setting. For instance, how can one evaluate one's skill to negotiate with a successful customer who is satisfied with the past record? The performance goal exercises conducted once in a year in companies provide feedback that is 'too late' and 'too gross'.

A corporate professional therefore has to use lot of ingenuity in getting feedback on his intended actions. 360 degree appraisal is a good feedback tool on perfecting some type of behaviours. This is why ability to set up experiments is critical for assessing one's performance and getting accurate feedback on a specific behaviour or action. It is not surprising to observe that even solo performers like sportsman need coaches for setting careful experiments to get quick and accurate feedback.

Due to the difficulty of setting experiments and getting accurate and quick feedback in corporate setting, it is natural that one cannot use this method for mastering all type of behaviours. Instead, one has to choose the specific set of behaviours which are meaningful and critical for your career. It could be mastering the skill set of Program manager; and that too a program manager who can manage, say clients, of Healthcare. Even that mastery of small skill set is enough to provide you a platform from which you can explore many more options.

If you however ignore this, you will become like Sreenath. I met Sreenath a year back. With an experience of over 12 years ( and that too in good organisations), he came to me because he was not getting a job, not the job. Isn't that surprising?