First Friday Book Synopsis

"…like CliffNotes on steroids…"

The Success Equation: A book review by Bob Morris

Success EquationThe Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing
Michael Mauboussin
Harvard Business Review Press (2012)

How and why to “untangle” skill and luck to improve at “the art of good guesswork” when making decisions

I have read all of Michael Mauboussin’s HBR Blog posts and thus have eagerly anticipated the publication of this volume in which he examines – in much greater depth than the articles permit — a common mistake when making predictions: failing to recognize the existence or miscalculating its influence, “and as a consequence we dwell too much on the specific evidence, especially recent evidence. This makes it tougher to judge performance…The problem is that we commonly twist, distort, or ignore the role that luck plays in our successes and failures. Thinking explicitly about how luck influences our lives can help offset that cognitive bias.”

Obviously, luck can be an important factor. The challenge that Mauboussin embraces is to explore and thereby understand “the extent to which luck contributes to our achievements, successes, and failures.” He shares what he has learned so that those who read this book will be much better prepared to take luck into full account when making decisions, especially those that serious implications and could have major consequences.

These are among the dozens of passages that are of special interest and value to me:

o Skill, Luck, and Prediction (Pages 5-10)
o The Luck-Skill Continuum and Three Lessons (23-29)
o Stories, Causality, and the Post Hoc Fallacy (34-38)
o The Paradox of Skill — More Skill Means Luck Is More Important (53-58)
o Simulation: Blending Distributions to Match the Results (70-73)
o Gauging Luck: Independent and Dependent Outcomes (110-116)
o Power Laws and the Mechanisms That Generate Them (116-123)
o Deliberate Practice: Structure, Hard Work, and All About Feedback (157-163)
o When Success Is Probabilistic, Focus on Process (167-174)
o How to Live in a World That We Do Not Understand (190-195)
o Mean Reversion Mistakes (200-206)

Some of the most valuable material in the book focuses on the difficulties that result from attempting to “untangle” skill and luck. (Many people are unaware of that “tangle.”) Mauboussin suggests that there is “a basic desire to find cause and effect in every situation, whether or not that view represents reality.” He identifies several reasons that help to explain misjudgments. They include the aforementioned desire to see causality where none exists, the regency bias, and the sample bias. He also has much of value to say about what I characterize as “reverse causality,” indicated by the assertion that wet highways cause rain. How to improve the odds when making an important decision? Be sure to check out “Ten Suggestions to Improve the Art of Good Guesswork in a World That Combines Skill and Luck” (Pages 215-233).

No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of material that Michael Mauboussin provides in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of him and his work. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read it and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how the information, insights, and wisdom could perhaps be of substantial benefit to them and to their own organization.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Olympic Champions, and Olympic Participants, and that 10,000 Hour Rule

So, as I have watched a few of the events from the Olympics, and I’ve been thinking about the 10,000 hour rule.  And I am ready to state the obvious:  putting in 10,000 hours guarantees nothing.

First, a refresher.  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, described the 10,000 hour rule.  To summarize, it takes 10,000 hours to get really world-class good at anything.  (Gladwell got the idea/concept from Anders Ericsson).

And then, in the book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, we learn that just any old 10,000 hours is not good enough.  You need to put in “deliberate practice” — lots and lots of deliberate practice – in order to get better and better.  In other words, you practice with the intent to get better.  This kind of practice is exhausting, and almost always needs a very knowledgeable coach, with terrific motivational skills.  (A coach who “can correct with creating resentment.”  John Wooden).

Now, back to the point of this post:  I am ready to state the obvious:  putting in 10,000 hours guarantees nothing.  Here’s what I mean.

As we watch the Olympics, we see pretty clearly that some athletes have developed a work ethic superior to others.  But there are plenty of athletes who put in pretty much the same kind of time, had the same high level work ethic, as the “winners” who beat them when the starter pistol went off.

So, putting in 10,000 hours guarantees nothing.  In sports, you need the 10,000 hours, plus the right coach, plus a little luck, plus maybe the right genetic makeup, plus

Plus, plus, plus…

The more we learn, the more we learn how critical the next “plus” might be.

Now, let me back up.  If we were not so fixated on winning the gold, we might come closer to admitting that the 10,000 hour rule does in fact guarantee success.  Even making an Olympic Team; or, even being good enough to compete in an Olympics Trials Qualifying Event to try to make the team, takes massive skill.  So, why is that not “success?”  It certainly should be.

And we do know that in many cases, coming in second is every bit a “win.”  Did you see the depth of emotion on the faces of Kelci Bryant and Abby Johnston after they won the Silver Medal in Synchronized Diving?  They may not have won the Gold, but, it was the first diving medal at all for the USA since 2000, and the first ever medal for the USA in this particular event.  Yes, the Chinese duo were better.  Noticeably better.  But these two young women were the second best in the world, and their 10,000 hours paid off.

Kelci Bryant, left, and Abby Johnston of the USA show off their silver medals from after finishing second in 3-meter synchronized diving. (By Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports)

Maybe we could say this:  maybe 10,000 guarantees nothing.  But a failure to put in 10,000 hours does guarantee something – you won’t make it to the top without putting in those 10,000 hours.

Now – the other challenge.  One reality about this kind of world-class accomplishment is that these athletes show up, every day, with a coach watching and “coaching” every moment.  Wouldn’t all of us get better at our jobs if we had that kind of individual coaching, motivating, “pushing us to the limit” daily encounter?  I think so.

Work ethic, plus coaching, plus deliberate practice, plus constant feedback, plus measurable goals, plus…  The road to true success really is a challenging road.

Monday, July 30, 2012 Posted by | Randy's blog entries | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Practicing Mind: A book review by Bob Morris

The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life
Thomas M. Sterner
New World Library (2012)

How and why “focusing on and finding joy in the process of achieving instead of [merely] having a goal…is magical and incredibly empowering”

For almost three decades, K. Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University have been conducting research on peak performance and the results clearly indicate that “deliberate practice” under expert supervision is far more important to success (however defined) than are talent and luck, although they have significance. This is precisely what Thomas Sterner has in mind when asserting that those who master the new skill to which the title of this review refers will possess “such qualities as self-discipline, focus, patience, and self awareness.” Moreover, he adds that these “all-important virtues are interwoven threads in the fabric of true inner peace and contentment in life.”

I agree with Sterner (who agrees with Ericsson) that it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of practice. “Everything in life worth achieving requires practice. In fact, life itself is nothing more than one long practice session, an endless effort of refining our motions.” Recall the reference to “deliberate practice,” also called “deep practice.” On average, peak performance in the creative and performing arts as well as in chess and competitive sports requires at least 10,000 hours of such practice (albeit difficult, repetitious, and boring pracice) under strict, expert supervision. Does that substantial commitment of time and energy guarantee success? No, but superior performance cannot be achieved without it.

As Sterner explains, he eventually became “immersed” – in his mid-30s — in practice after intensely disliking it for years and even abandoning it altogether. What he learned about music growing up “laid the foundation” that would later help him to understand both the mental and struggles in which he found himself when searching for answers. Whatever the nature of the activity (e.g. playing golf or a guitar or both), Sterner realized that various failures stemmed from a lack of understanding of “proper mechanics of practicing” as well as the mindset required to complete a process of goal setting and then do whatever must be done to achieve it. “Perhaps most important, I realized that I had learned how to accomplish just that without the frustration and anxiety usually associated with such an activity.” That in essence is the core insight that was finally revealed to him.

Here are three of Sterner’s the key points, supplemented by my parenthetical annotations:

1. The mind (what the brain is and does) can be expanded in two primary ways: by constant nourishment (e.g. meditation, knowledge, sensory experience) and by constant practice (i.e. increasing mastery of various skills).

2. Personal development and improvement requires a focused and disciplined approach to what is most important, especially when encountering setbacks, ambiguity, and fatigue.

3. Initiatives should be guided and informed by these four “S” words: simplify (“Make everything as simple as possible but no simpler,” Albert Einstein); small); short (the best way to eat a whale is one bite at a time), short (“baby steps” in the right direction rather than giant leaps in the wrong direction), and slow (establish an energy-efficient and awareness-expanding pace).

Development of the “practicing mind” is a never-ending process, best viewed as a journey, rather than as an ultimate destination. I agree with Thomas Sterner that none of the “truths” that he has examined are new. “They are just the eternal lessons that we have learned and relearned over the centuries from those who have questioned and found peace in the answers. This is where the fun begins.”

I envy those who have not as yet read this book and will soon do so, preparing for what I hope proves to the most enjoyable journey of personal discovery that they will ever experience. Bon voyage!

Saturday, May 26, 2012 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Charles S. Jacobs: A second interview by Bob Morris

Charles S. Jacobs

Charles S. Jacobs is founder and managing partner of 180 Partners, and the author of Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science. For over two decades, he has helped the leadership of corporations around the world improve the performance of their businesses. He numbers among his clients fifty of the Fortune 100, and has worked in Europe, Asia, South America, and the U.S.

His unique approach enables managers to use our new understanding of the brain to comprehensively rethink their businesses, creating more robust competitive strategies and the performance-oriented organizations needed to implement them. His work provides the key to overcome the number one obstacle to meaningful improvement in business performance—the rapid and effective management of change.

His writing has appeared in numerous business publications and he is sought after for print and broadcast interviews. His seminars and speeches offer an overview of the stunning discoveries of brain science and the direct, practical application of those discoveries to management. He completed his B.A., M.A., and PhD work at the University of Michigan.

Here is an excerpt from my second interview of Charles. To read the complete interview, please click here.

To read the first interview, please click here.

*     *     *

Morris: Much has (and hasn’t) happened in the business world since our last conversation. In your opinion, which change has been most significant? Why?

Jacobs: The key development for me has been the rise of self-managed, leaderless groups, fueled by technology and social media. We saw it with the Arab spring, and with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Regardless of how you might feel about the aims and tactics of such movements, they have been wildly successful in attracting both membership and attention, and they’ve done it with a speed that is dizzying.

I recently asked a client of mine that runs a highly successful business how she managed the fifteen thousand millennial software engineers. She told me she didn’t. She went on to describe a self-managed team with an internal social networking site as its hub.

Increasingly over the last year, I’ve noticed my work has been focused on building self-managing organizations. They’re much more productive, people prefer them, and managers are freed up to focus outward on customers and market trends. I think we are seeing a redefinition of leadership for the wired age.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Management Rewired, what prompted you to write it?

Jacobs: I’ve always been fascinated by how the mind works. When I started working in the business world, I was struck by how most of our management practices, based on behavioral science, weren’t terribly effective. I found that better results came from focusing on the thinking that drives the behavior.

When I sold my first business, I had an opportunity to study the latest research in brain science and I found it really exciting. The invention of the fMRI allowed us to see the brain at work for the first time, and what we learning had more in common with Eastern philosophy and quantum mechanics than behavioral science.

Not only were the discoveries fascinating in their own right, they explained much of what I had observed in my work. They also suggested a better way to improve business performance, even though it might seem counterintuitive. My book is my attempt to communicate the excitement of these discoveries and their practical application.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it?

Jacobs: There were really two for me that were game-changing. The first is that the brain doesn’t faithfully record our experience of the world, as much as it creates it. Our sense data are processed in the brain with input from the areas associated with our goals, emotions, and beliefs.

Rather than being objective, the world we experience is a unique product of our aspirations, feelings and expectations. To be effective in our interactions with others, we need to appreciate the story they tell themselves, and most likely it is very different than the one we tell ourselves.

The second is that our decision-making is driven more by emotions than logic and we make better decisions as a result. If we get too caught up in the objective data, we lose access to our gut feelings, which in reality are the product of the accumulated experience of our lifetime. We then make worse decisions, even in supposedly objective areas like finance. The data is important, but the feelings put it into context.

Both of these revelations challenge our conventional wisdom about management and give rise to new, more effective approaches.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ from what you originally envisioned?

Jacobs: The original draft was about twice as long and far more academic. I had a wonderful editor at Portfolio who taught me that an author, just like a business organization, needs to be focused on the customer.

Managers are busy, so a business book needs to be engaging, concise, and immediately applicable. The best ideas in the world will die an obscure death if they’re not presented in a way that compels people to attend to them. I think the same constraint applies to a manager’s communication.

Morris: If you were updating the book (and you may yet), what would be the most significant revisions (if any) in the new edition?

Jacobs: Even in the short time since the book was written, there have been even more substantial advances in cognitive neuroscience, so of course I would want to include those. The same is true of technology.

For example, smartphones are keeping us more connected and speeding up the pace of business. At the same time, there’s less face-to-face human contact, which has been the basis of our relationships for hundreds of thousand of years. Managing in an environment with different rates of evolution for technology and the human brain is a huge challenge.

I would also add more of the view from the trenches. I am fascinated by ideas–they change the brain, the mind, and our behavior. But managers don’t have the time or the bandwidth to answer the “so what?” More war stories illustrating direct applications would help them utilize the power of the latest brain research.

*     *     *

To read the complete interview, please click here.

To read the first interview, please click here.

Charles Jacobs cordially invites you to check out these websites:

Thursday, February 9, 2012 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tony Schwartz on “Six Ways Leaders Can Fuel Excellence At Anything”

Tony Schwartz

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Tony Schwartz for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.

*     *     *

In August, I posted a blog titled Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything. Over the subsequent three months it has become one of HBR’s most widely read blogs ever.

The notion that we can be excellent at anything prompted passionate debate. On the one hand, it’s empowering and inspiring to believe that excellence is within our reach in any area to which we devote ourselves with sufficient diligence — something the researcher Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.”

Just think of how many movies — often based on true stories — tell the story of inspiring teachers, coaches and mentors helping undervalued kids become extraordinary performers: The Blind Side, Stand and Deliver, Lean On Me, Mr. Holland’s Opus, The Bad News Bears, and Dangerous Minds, among many others.

At the same time, it’s daunting to consider that when we ourselves fall short of excellence, it’s not that we lack talent but rather we haven’t put in the right kind of effort.

There is precious little scientific evidence to suggest that genes are our destiny — and more and more evidence of neuroplasticity — the capacity to influence the way our genes express themselves. So what, then, can leaders do to most effectively inspire and nurture excellence in those they lead? Here are six keys:

1. Ban words like “talented,” “gifted,” and “special” from your vocabulary. Well meaning as these words may be, they tend to give people credit for something they did nothing to earn, while also suggesting that others don’t have equal potential. Consider replacing these words with ones like “effective,” “determined,” “accomplished,” “skilled,” “persevering,” and “masterful,” all of which give due credit to effort.

2. Regularly, genuinely, and specifically acknowledge and appreciate people’s successes. Believe deeply in their potential, enthusiastically encourage their passions, and don’t be overly fazed by their failures. There may be nothing more motivating to the people you lead than to notice what they’re doing well, and to express your appreciation with detail and specificity. Likewise, there may be no single more powerful act than to handwrite and mail someone a personal note of appreciation.

3. Provide constant feedback. Annual or semi-annual reviews are vastly insufficient and often worthless. Most people don’t improve their skills over time, in large part because they don’t get consistent, specific feedback. That’s different than judgment or criticism. As often as possible, resist pointing out people’s deficits, and focus instead on where you can help them improve or take it to the next level in any given area.

4. Create and protect periods of uninterrupted focus. Don’t demand instant responses from your people all day long. Interruptions fracture their attention, and absorbed focus is a prerequisite to high quality work, especially on the most challenging tasks. Stop measuring your people by how many hours they work, and assess them instead based on the value they produce.

5. Encourage and model intermittent renewal throughout the day. Great performers, the research shows, work intensely for periods no longer than 90 minutes and then stop to recover and refuel. Create a “renewal room” so people have a place to truly chill out. Nothing better fuels productivity in the afternoons than a 20-30 minute nap between 12 and 2 p.m,
and encouraging people to exercise at midday runs a close second.

6. Tie the pursuit of excellence to a larger mission. Excellence requires enormous effort. You need to give your people a compelling reason to push beyond their comfort zones. What most of us hunger for is evidence that what we’re doing truly matter and serves something beyond the bottom line. CEOs such as Alan Mullally at Ford, John Chambers at Cisco, and Steve Jobs at Apple have done a great job rallying their people around a higher mission. Start by defining what you truly stand for, share with others what gets you up in the morning as often as you can, and encourage people to go through the same exercise for themselves.

*     *     *
Tony Schwartz is president and CEO of The Energy Project. He is the author of the June, 2010 HBR article, The Productivity Paradox: How Sony Pictures Gets More Out of People by Demanding Less, and co-author, with Catherine McCarthy, of the 2007 HBR article, Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time. He  is also the author of the new book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance (Free Press, 2010).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Andrew Sobel explains “what’s so special about Special Ops”

Andrew Sobel

Here is an article that was published in strategy+business magazine (November 24, 2009)

In my opinion, it is a “must read” for all business leaders who (a) are planning to launch a new company, (b) have recently done so, or (c) are now involved with an organization that is struggling (with unsatisfactory results) to survive the current economic recession/depression/whatever.

*     *     *

The U.S. military’s elite training programs offer a model for the strategic deployment of human capital and for building effective teams.

During the fall of 2001, a small task force of U.S. military special operations forces arrived in Afghanistan. It was named Task Force Dagger, and its mission was to work with the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban and uproot the terrorist training camps they were harboring. In just a few months, fewer than 200 Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and Air Force Special Tactics operators expelled nearly 100,000 entrenched Taliban and al Qaeda forces. It was an extraordinary success, and one that drew heavily on the multifaceted capabilities of special operations forces, who can build alliances with local fighters (all Army Special Forces must learn a second language, for example), infiltrate enemy lines, and bring to bear intense firepower in small, mobile units. Many Americans remember the now-iconic photograph, taken during that operation, of a U.S. special operator on horseback, holding the reins of his horse in one hand and a satellite phone in the other. In that picture, he is wearing long hair, a beard, and traditional Afghani robes. It’s a portrait of a modern-day, high-tech warrior equally at ease with Kevlar and leather, comfortable both launching a commando raid and helping local villagers improve their water supply.

The post–9/11 world has brought U.S. military special operations into the limelight as never before. For many observers, there is something inspiring and even mysterious about these highly trained teams of men (like all frontline U.S. combat troops, they are all male) who are motivated to achieve their mission at any cost. In business, we talk about being willing to “walk through walls” to achieve our goals, but special operations teams really do things like that.

So what’s the secret? What’s so special about special operations? Can business professionals learn something from them besides the obvious truisms about the importance of focus and discipline? In fact, the effectiveness of special operations forces is rooted in a carefully designed and comprehensive system of recruiting, training, infrastructure support, leadership, and organizational culture.

Can private-sector organizations emulate these techniques in the same consistent and integrated manner? They can, although we must acknowledge the significant differences between the private sector and the military. For example, in the military you make a long-term commitment (often four or six years in special operations) and cannot just quit because you find a better job. You have a legal requirement to follow the orders of your superior officers. Service members are also, explicitly or implicitly, willing to risk their lives to defend their country.

For the moment, however, let’s set these differences aside and look at what we can learn from the key elements of this high-performance system. As we’ll see, in fact, many special operations practices can be and have been adapted to the corporate world.
Elite Magnetism

The term special operations forces (SOF for short) refers to a wide variety of specialized forces in all four of the armed services. The lessons that follow are based primarily on a study of three major groups of SOF: the Army Special Forces (also known as Green Berets), the Navy SEALs, and Air Force Special Tactics units. Their fame is disproportionate to their numbers: There are only about 15,000 special operations servicemen in a military of more than 2 million active-duty and reserve personnel.

Although their missions overlap quite a bit, each of these special operations groups receives slightly different training and has a slightly different focus. Army Special Forces are often used to help train indigenous forces, for example, whereas Navy SEALs tend to be used more for direct action engagements. Air Force Special Tactics forces include Pararescuemen, a specialized group of search-and-rescue trauma paramedics, and combat controllers, who call in airstrikes from the field.

Special operations forces use an attraction strategy to get access to the best raw talent in the military. Their elite status is a magnetic draw for young men who want to prove themselves and be among the best. The average education level of special operations recruits is above that for conventional forces, and it is not uncommon to find individuals with advanced degrees from top colleges or managerial experience in a corporation. The exclusive branding of special operations draws many recruits at the front end, where a high percentage are turned down before even being given a chance in the selection program.

When it comes to recruitment, SOF units are not unlike highly desirable employers in their ability to attract the best. Their selectivity has another positive effect: It is well documented that the steeper the hurdle to get accepted into a group, the more loyalty and commitment you have to it once you’re in. This certainly motivates the bankers at elite firms like Goldman Sachs, where the prospective status, pay, and influence that go along with being a partner propel them to work long hours and develop extraordinary loyalty to the organization if and when they do reach that elite inner circle.
Total Training

The training that SOF personnel go through is a key to their success in real missions. Their training is in-depth, realistic, and repetitive, and it is run by the most experienced SOF operators — not classroom-schooled educators. This type of training puts true meaning into the overused term total immersion. If you add up the different phases of training that SOF candidates must go through, including specialized courses (such as high-altitude free-fall parachuting) and advanced training in their units, it may take two or three years at minimum to produce a fully developed SOF operator.
Five important aspects of SOF training reveal why it’s so effective, and also why much of the one-off, classroom-based training conducted by private-sector companies is of limited value.

Continue reading

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Throwing Money” At Your Training Needs Just Might Be A Very Wise Investment

“most of the research shows that when class size reduction programs are well-designed and implemented, student achievement rises as class size drops.
Intuitively, it makes sense that the more attention a teacher can focus on each student, the more the student will benefit and, therefore, perform at a higher level.”

(excerpted from here).
As business leaders, we’re voracious seekers of business improvement ideas in the form of conferences, books, blogs, and training.  We want our performance to be better, and we know it should be better.
(Gary Harpst:  Six Disciplines Execution Revolution)


It’s Saturday.  Let’s think about a big question/problem for American business.

The conventional wisdom goes like this.  When you hire someone, make the right hire. If you make the wrong hire, you’ve got trouble.

If you make the right hire, and the person you hired needs to improve in a specific area, or two or three, then provide the right training.

This I know.  It is foolish to have a good person (i.e., the “right hire”) trying to succeed at a job that he/she is not trained to succeed at.  And when the “right hire” receives the right training, and then gets the right encouragement/supervision, the person, and the company, is more successful.

So – what is the right training?  Let’s think about this training question.  This is a big issue because in these tight economic times, companies cut expenses where they can – and training is one of the areas that gets cut.  And the result of such cuts can definitely lead to more difficulties.  When training budgets get cut, people don’t get trained.  And then they don’t get better at their jobs.  And then, because they don’t get better at their jobs, companies lose more money, or, at least, don’t make as much money as they could.

So – back to the question.  What is the right training?

I suggest a simple formula:  when the skill/deficiency is a simple matter of learning — for example:  how to use a new software program; how to be proficient on Excel; how to create PowerPoint slides — then a training class of many, even very many, students can do the trick.

But the closer you get to what we call the soft skills — which are critical to a person’s success in so many jobs – then a large training class with very many students may not do the trick.  No, that’s not strong enough.  The closer you get to the soft skills, a large training class, with little one-on-one attention and follow up coaching, will not do the trick.  It just won’t.

Let me describe an underlying bias, and then give an example.

A couple of decades ago, George McGovern came to Dallas to speak to a political group.  One question he was asked during the Q & A was this:  “How can we improve education in this country?”  That qualifies as an important need.  He said something like this (paraphrased, from memory):  “People say that you can’t fix education by throwing more money at the problem.  Well, I’m not so sure.  Because hiring more teachers takes money.  And if there is one thing that we know is true about education, it is this — the smaller the class size, the smaller the teacher-student ratio, the better the educational outcomes.”

Is that true – about the class size issue?  Take Dallas.  One of the schools that is legendary for its very successful educational outcomes is the private school St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas.  Now, I know that the parents are very involved.  And the students come from families that truly prize a good education.  And the school is very demanding.  (Check out their current summer reading assignments.  This is a school with very high expectations!).  And, yes, the teachers are certainly among the very best possible.

But here is a simple fact about St. Mark’s: the teacher-student ration is 6.83 to 1  (I did the math from this page on their website).  Let me say that again – that is better than one teacher for every seven students. How does that compare?  Well, nationally, the teacher-student ratio is higher in public schools than in private schools.  And St. Mark’s ratio is substantially better than the national average for private schools.  (You can compare some of these national average numbers here).

In other words, enough money is “thrown at” education at St. Mark’s to guarantee more personal attention.  And personal attention produces more development, more correction…  better educational outcomes!  And those outcomes are better at St. Mark’s than in schools that have higher teacher-student ratios.

So, back to the business lesson.  What if you “throw more money” at training?  The closer you get to a low teacher-student ratio (trainer-employee ratio), especially for those hard to teach yet very important “soft skills,” the better the training outcomes.  It really is, to state the obvious, simple math.

Here’s one example.  Say you have an employee who needs to make presentations.  This employee is smart, qualified, knowledgeable – but not very adept at making presentations.  What do you do?

You can send that employee to a speech class at a local community college.  (I teach such classes).  That will help – a little, and it will cost very little.  But I have classes with up to 25 students.  The time I have for one-to-one, individual attention per student is practically zero.    And, as much as I hate to admit it, all I can do is “tell” the basics.  I can’t do much “coaching” in such classes.  And, I am sad to say, many of my students in these classes show little actual improvement in their presentation skills over the course of a semester.

Or, you can bring in a good trainer for presentation skills training.  (Karl Krayer and I offer that through Creative Communication Network).  And the outcome is almost utterly predictable – the smaller the group of people, the more one-on-one coaching we can provide in the training experience, the better the training outcome.

For example, we are about to lead a two-day session for a company sending 4 people to the training.  That is a trainer-employee ratio of 4-1.  We will “tell,” but then each participant will practice, over and over again, for the two days.  We will video tape, we will point out the bright spots, and then offer suggestions, and corrections.  This is very high-impact training.

And, it is possible to get even better outcomes. Say a key employee has a very important presentation or series of presentations to make, and it is important for the company that these go well.  If the employee could be more successful, and thus the company could be more successful, if he/she got substantially better, then you could hire a one-to-one presentation skills coach.  (Yes, Karl and I offer this training also).  This coach will provide some initial training, with very focused one-to-one practice and skill development, then watch a few presentations, offer correctives, point to ways to improve, and then provide periodic check-ups.

This is very expensive training.  But maybe not as expensive as continued inadequate performance.

This approach can be repeated with other skill development.  For example, Karl Krayer teaches a half day business writing skills session, then meets one-on-one with each participant, going over actual writing examples, and then provides follow up.

Why?  Because we forget what we hear/read in the training sessions.  We forget what our “coach” told us.  There’s a reason why great sports teams practice every day.  And there’s a reason why the best sports teams have very low coach-athlete ratios.  It takes a lot of work to get good, and than really good, and then even better, at anything.

Such are my thoughts for a Saturday.

Saturday, July 10, 2010 Posted by | Randy's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Long View vs. The Short View; or, the old “Forest for the Trees” issue – A Reflection on Learning from Reading Books

I have actually read a fair amount of Aristotle.  Not in the original language (although, a little bit of that too).  But in my graduate work in rhetoric, we had to read Aristotle.  And he is really, really important.  But, now, centuries later, his main ideas are usually summarized by others.  And the summaries are accessible, make sense, and are profound.  For many, a good summary is enough – enough information, enough to launch the thought processes that lead to real-world ideas and changes for the better.

From Aristotle, for example:  to be persuasive (rhetoric is all about finding the available means of persuasion), you need logos (a good logical argument), ethos (a good ethical case/argument — true credibility on the part of the speaker/writer), and pathos (a good emotional argument – an engaging “this matters to me” by the speaker/writer).  And a few others back from around the time of era of Aristotle add the power of a fourth element, mythos (the narrative appeal – this rings true to our story as a people/nation/company…).  Now Aristotle wrote on many other themes, but you get the point.  A person writes a book.  Others read it.  And with the passage of time, they are able to summarize, really effectively, the truths and principles and insights from books.  And it helps us understand.

I thought of all this as I read this excellent summary of a series of recent books on the financial crisis. What Caused the Economic Crisis?  The 15 best explanations for the Great Recession by Jacob Weisberg.  (from and Newsweek – I read it on the Slate site).

Though the crisis is recent, there is a large number of books proposing explanations for the economic crisis with clear themes and explanations proposed for consideration.  Weisberg summarizes many of these, dividing the suggested explanations into themes and explanations, and concludes with this phrase:

But if we haven’t at least learned that our financial markets need stronger regulatory supervision and better controls to prevent bad bets by big firms from going viral, we’ll be back in the same place before you can say 30 times leverage.

I think the article is worth reading.  I have perused a few of the books mentioned, and the article does a good job summarizing the key explanations.  And learning these is important – we would really like to dig out of this crisis, and certainly to avoid similar crises in the future.

But the purpose of this post is more about the process of reading books and then learning something important from what we read.  None of us (ok – very few of us) can remember all that we read.  But we can remember key points, extract the most important principles and themes, and then allow these to inform our thinking and direct our practice.  That is why we read (at least, why we read nonfiction and business books) – to learn, to keep learning.

I have learned this from my own experience from reading, and presenting synopses of, business books.   In the last few months, I have read Outliers (Gladwell) and Talent is Overrated (Colvin), and learned that it takes 10,000 hours to get really, really good at something, and that those hours have to be spent in deliberate practice – practice for the purpose of getting better.  I have read 10-10-10 by Suzy Welch, learning that decisions can be better made if we look at their impact in the next 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years.  I have read The Opposable Mind (Martin) and discovered that to make the best decisions we need to hold two opposing ideas in our heads at the same time.

These are just a few of the “summaries” that I think of just from the last few months.  Are these books worth reading in their entirety?  Absolutely.  But with all of the stories, supporting information and data in the books, it is the key principles that matter, that shape my thinking, and that I remember most from reading these books.

Saturday, January 9, 2010 Posted by | Randy's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paul Nicklen, one of those “10,000 hours” photographers, capturing our world in great photographs

I was in my car today at just the right time.  I heard a terrific interview conducted by Kris Boyd of Think on KERA with National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen.  He told of the work. the patience, the long-term commitment he had to get just the right photographs.  He has spent countless hours in the Arctic looking for those photographs.  It is a great interview.

Here is an excerpt about his new book (from his web site):
In this spectacular work, National Geographic photographer and biologist Paul Nicklen breaks new ground with stunning images of life in the polar reaches, and delivers critical new insights into animal behavior and the climate change that threatens the ice and its inhabitants.

I kept thinking about the 10,000 hour rule.  You know, the rule that says that it takes 10,000 hours of work (including a lot of deliberate practice) to do the best work possible.  This man has certainly spent more than 10,000 hours in search of these perfect photographs.  So, I rushed in to look at his web site.  What a treasure.  Just take a look at this photograph:

Listen to the interview from KERA here.  Check out his photographs here.  And consider buying his new book, Polar Obsession.

What a treat.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010 Posted by | Randy's blog entries | , , , , | Leave a comment

Reinforcement for that 10,000 hour rule and the Power of Deliberate Practice (from Coach Wooden, Gladwell, Colvin, and Levitt & Dubner)

I first learned of the 10,000 hour rule — it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at/to truly master any skill –from reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.  Then I learned more about how to spend the 10,000 hours in “deliberate practice” from Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.

Here’s more.  In Superfreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner refer back to the “father” of the 10,000 hour rule, K. Anders Ericsson.  And yesterday, at a lunch gathering, I presented my synopsis of Wooden on Leadership, by the great, legendary, best-ever-coach John Wooden.  Though he does not refer to the concept directly, he provided the true “deliberate practice” model, with each session of his practices planned to the minute…

So — here are a few reminders from each of these authors, with brief comment a time or two:

From Wooden:
Have a definite practice plan – and follow it.
The coach must never forget that he is, first of all, a teacher.  He must come (be present), see (diagnose), and conquer (correct).  He must continuously be exploring for ways to improve himself in order that he may improve others and welcome every person and everything that may be helpful to him.
You must have patience and expect more mistakes, but drill and drill to reduce them to a minimum.

From Gladwell:
The people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else.  They work much, much harder.

In my synopsis of Outliers, I added these reflections:
• centerpiece to this book is the 10,000 hour rule… — with much intentional practice!
• “Practicing:  that is, purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better”
• Some “observations:
1.              It really does take a lot of hard, hard work – the 10,000 hour rule really is close to an actual rule!
2.              Hard work requires much intentional practice.
3.              Success is the result of “accumulative advantage.”

From Colvin:
There is absolutely no evidence of a ‘fast track’ for high achievers.
Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration.  This is what makes it “deliberate,” as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.  Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one’s hardest to make them better places enormous strains on anyone’s mental abilities.

From Levitt and Dubner:
If you don’t love what you’re doing, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good at it.
“Deliberate practice has three key components: setting specific goals; obtaining immediate feedback; and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.”  (K. Anders Ericsson)

(I wrote this in a blog post about Ken Robinson’s The Element:  How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything a while back:
So — here is the question that we each need to ask: What do I care deeply enough about that I am willing to put in significant time, over the long haul, to get better at it? Even if the time I put in is not necessarily fun.

So, we’re always back to this challenge — where are you investing your 10,000 hours?

Saturday, December 5, 2009 Posted by | Randy's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 415 other followers

%d bloggers like this: