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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'.

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