Sunday, August 31, 2008

Role of deliberate practice in making of a star performer

Are stars born or made? There are two schools of thought concerning star performance. One says that stars are born talented (get the “stuff” through the genes) and the other says that it is mostly your practice that makes you perfect. Psychology Prof. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University clearly belongs to the latter school. However, what is different about Prof. Anders is that he does not stop at taking a position like most of us. He delves deeper into the concept of “practice” and tells us what kind of practice differentiates a star performer with the rest. He calls this kind of practice “Deliberate Practice”.

What is deliberate practice? Deliberate practice involves following:
1. Learner’s motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve the performance (are you passionate about it?)
2. Design of the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learner (is the practice customized for you?)
3. Learner should receive immediate feedback
4. Learner should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

How long does one do deliberate practice before one becomes super-expert? Hold your breath. To achieve highest level of performance, typically learners take 10 or more years. Apparently Boby Fischer was an exception in the last century and he took 9 years to become super-expert.

A classic essay on deliberate practice: If you are interested in reading more about deliberate practice, you should read A stars is made essay from Freakonomics-fame authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. They show how deliberate practice can explain the anomaly that “Elite soccer players are more likely to have been born in the earlier months of the year than in the later months.” If academic papers don’t cause any indigestion to you then you might want to try Prof. Anders Ericsson’s paper “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Winning the boxing game: Art of personal branding

Boxing game: During my workshop on technical leadership, we have a session dedicated for understanding “influencing without authority” as Influence is one of the three Is critical for technical leader (see 3I model). Another term I use for this is “Personal brand”. Rajesh Setty introduces this concept beautifully in his eBook Personal Brand for Technology Professionals. Whether we like it or not, people around us – inside organization and outside – are boxing us with various labels such as software engineer, consultant, good for nothing, terror etc. Similarly, we are boxing others as well. However, unlike competitive boxing, this boxing game can have win-win outcome. Do people around you (who matter to you) remember you with the right kind of box? Do you have a personal brand in the organization?

Image of “Personal brand”: When I asked this question about personal brand in the last workshop, one participant answered, “Personal brand is a necessary evil.” What came as a bigger surprise was that most others (budding technical leaders) agreed with this opinion. So I asked, “How will people in other projects come to know that here is an expert whom we should invite for technical review?” The answer was, “My actions should speak for themselves. I don’t want to boast about myself.”

Art of personal branding: Well, “necessary evil” may sound like an extreme view. But the truth is, most technologists don’t consider “brand building” as an important activity. It is no surprise that many of them find it difficult to grow as technical leaders. When you grow as an architect or principal engineer, you don’t get a large team reporting to you. In fact, you may be an individual contributor. This means your span of control is not large. However, organization expects you to create significant value by assisting delivery teams, by grooming and mentoring juniors, through innovation and by assisting in business development. So, to excel as a technical leader, you have to learn the art of personal branding and start enjoying the boxing game.
And don’t forget to read the classic essay by Tom Peters “The brand called you”.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Going beyond idea contest #3: Building innovation sandboxes

Sandbox: My study room (cum bedroom) faces a sandpit. It is a joy to watch playful kids engrossed in the sand creating forts & castles of different kind each day. The rigid walls of the sandpit make their game a controlled one. They have a minimal and yet useful tools with them. And more importantly they have flowing sand which they mould whichever way their imagination takes them. Wonder why can’t we build such sandboxes in our organizations?

Metaphor of “sandbox”: I am certainly not the first one to link innovation approach to sandbox creation. C. K. Prahalad introduced an approach called “Innovation sandbox” in an article published in Strategy+Business. This approach is called an innovation “sandbox” because it involves fairly complex, free-form exploration and even playful experimentation (the sand, with its flowing, shifting boundaries) within fixed specified constraints (the walls, straight and rigid, that box in the sand).

What is an innovation platform? Taking the sandbox metaphor, I feel that innovation platform contains following 4 elements:

  1. A set of constraints (corresponding to the walls of the sandbox)
  2. A lab for experimentation (corresponding to the sand)
  3. A set of tools (corresponding to the tools in the sandbox)
  4. A critical mass of passionate people (kids playing in the sandbox)

An example: Let’s take a concrete example. RIA (Rich Internet Application) is a hot technology. Let’s say we would like to develop an innovation platform around it. Hence, our constraint #1 is: RIA. Another important constraint I will fix by asking the question: What market trend do we want this platform to exploit? The answer may be social networking or e-commerce (or something else). This would be constraint#2. Then I would ask the question: What are we really good at which we want to leverage? Answer may be “testing” or “system integration” or “end to end development”. I would fix the answer as constraint#3.

Next we need to answer the question: How can we build a prototyping lab for this platform? Is there an open source platform already available? And what kind of tools do we need?

Defining criteria: You may say, all this is fine, where are the people? And you are right. We got it all wrong. We first need to ask the question, what do (at least a few) people in my organization excited about? As a KM head in a large IT organization told me today, you need at least 6-7 passionate folks to keep a platform going.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Thin line between passion and obsession

Most useful lesson from the world camp: Vishwanathan Anand talked about his life in the past few years when the number 1 title was eluding him in an interview with Times of India. Vishy said, “Before Mexico (last September), I came close to the number one spot or the world title in 2005 and 2006 too. It didn’t happen. That is when I got my most useful lesson: If you obsess over something, you won’t get it. I went back to my play-chess-enjoy-it philosophy then. By 2007, I had more or less stopped thinking about goals. But then, almost miraculously, I won Linares after 10 years. I became a 2800 player again and also climbed to number one spot.”

If you obsess over something you won’t get it: As an entrepreneur, having chosen to follow my passion, it has been an enjoyable journey. However, a few months back, I seemed to be overly worried about the impending recession and how much the business will be affected in the coming months. My wife said, “You seem to be tense.” Even a friend made a similar remark looking at my face. And suddenly there was a realization that I had (unnecessarily) become obsessive about the business (and how much it should progress etc.) And that is when Vishy’s lesson came handy.

Identifying your alarm bells: It is only human to cross lines. But then wouldn’t it help if we have our own alarm bells which will go off when the line is crossed between passion and obsession? So I asked myself, “What are the signs that I have become obsessive?” I few things came to mind:

1.     Did I jog in the last week?
2.     Did I go for a walk / watch movie / play / concert with my wife?
3.     Did I listen to Hindustani classical music in the past 2 weeks?
4.     Did I practice flute in the last 2 weeks?
5.     Did I go cycling with my son in the last 2-3 weeks?
6.     Did I get out of the city in the last 2-3 months?
7.     Did I read any fiction, especially a Marathi book in the past 2-3 months?

It has been only a few months since the last obsession-period. Let’s see when the next round comes. And let me see if this list helps.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

In love with the villain: Curse of knowledge

I am addicted to reading. And like any addict, I look for excuses to indulge. When my friend RamP sent me an email a couple of weeks back that I should buy the book “Made to stick”, I immediately went and bought one copy.

Made to stick” written by Dan and Chip Heath is about how to design a message such that it becomes more sticky. All of us know how much we remember from the last presentation that we attended. On the flip side, the same thing must be true about the last presentation we made as well. The book talks about attributes such as simplicity, unexpectedness, and concreteness that are common to all sticky messages.

Apart from these interesting attributes, the story has a villain too. The villain who makes it really hard for us to generate sticky messages. And it is this villain which has got stuck to my mind more than anything else. In fact, I would say I am in love with the villain! Who is this villain, after all? It is called “Curse of knowledge”. When we, as experts, know something, it is extremely difficult to imagine what it means to “not to know” that something. I don’t know about you, but I have felt this “villain” in me active many times during my training sessions.

It is no surprise that the Stickiness Aptitude Test created by Guy Kawasaki & Co takes away 3 points if you are an engineer and takes away 4 points if you are an MBA. It does not even consider PhD worthy of mention (perhaps, you are not even qualified to take the test). I have learnt my lesson.

You may want to check out Chip Heath's interview with McKinsey Quarterly. And Guy Kawasaki's interview with Dan Heath. And Chip Heath's interview podcast at

Friday, August 8, 2008

Going beyond idea contests #2: Insights from centenarians

Listening to centenarians: In my previous article titled “Going beyond idea contents”, I wrote about how organizations find it challenging to sustain their innovation initiatives. Sometimes it helps to look at what 100+ year old organizations consider important. Last June, I had the good fortune to listen to 3 presentations sharing innovation insights from 100+ year old companies at India Innovation Summit. Moreover, each of the speakers was with the respective organization for close to or more than quarter of a century. The organizations were: Proctor & Gamble, 3M and DuPont and the gentlemen who represented them were: Dr. Shekhar Mitra, Global R&D Vice President P&G (came from Ohio), Bert O’donoghoue, MD, 3M India and Dr. Homi Bhedwar, Director R&D, DuPont Knowledge Centre. P&G is 176 year old; 3M has 105 year old history while DuPont has 207 year old history (started in 1802).

Does 3M talk about idea contests? Well, none of these folks talked about idea contents. That does not mean that they don’t have idea contests. However, “idea contests” don’t form a core in their innovation effort. Then what do these companies consider important as a basic building block? The answer is: Platforms. In fact, Bert of 3M showed us a “periodic table” consisting of 45 platforms. Some of these platforms were: adhesive, filtration, microreplication. Bert also presented the mapping of platforms to businesses. For example, 3M has 40 businesses and adhesives platform is used in 24 out of 40 businesses (filtration is used in 8/40 and microreplication is used in 16/40). While DuPont does not have as many innovation platforms as 3M, Homi said it does have dozens. In contrast to 3M and DuPont, P&G innovation effort is consumer led. P&G innovation platforms are anchored in basic human want such as thirst, hygiene, beauty etc. Moreover, P&G is good at using the same platform and creating different products at different price points in different markets (e.g. developed vs emerging).

Innovation platforms: Instead of asking the question, are we generating ideas? Or are we conducting idea contests? Ask the question, what innovation platform(s) are we building? What is it anchored in? Perhaps answers to questions like these will lead to “sustainable innovation”.