Friday, January 30, 2009

There is a problem, let's fix it

Four interesting points from the book "Hard Facts," a book from the Harvard Business School Press:


Talent or ability... depends on what happens to people and how they are coached, not just their innate skill or motivation.

A study by Lawrence Kahn examined the effect of baseball managers on team and player performance. Kahn measured player ability by the average of their performance over their entire carers, a reliable indicator of player talent.

He found that some managers inspired players to perform above their ability, and other managers stymied players, consistently driving players to perform below their ability.

Ability or talent did not explain all of a player's performance in a given year. How the player was managed or coached mattered, too.


What is true for individuals is also true for organizations, groups, and teams. Exceptional performance depends heavily on experience and effort. No matter how gifted (or ordinary) team members are to start out, the more experience they have working together, the better their teams do.

Think of the U.S. women's national soccer team, which has won numerous championships, including two of the four women's World Cups and two of the three Olympic women's tournaments held to date.

The team certainly has had enormously talented players. Yet every team member will tell you that the most important factors in their success were the communication, mutual understanding, respect, and ability to work together tha tdeveloped in the dozen or so years that the stable core group played together.

Quantitative research on team effectiveness has demonstrated the power of such joint experience in every setting examined, including string quartets, surgical teams, student groups, top management teams, and airplane cockpit crews.

Experienced teams perform better because over time members come to trust each other more, communicate more effectively, and learn to blend each other's diverse skills, strengths, and weaknesses.


The "talent mind-set" is dangerous because it treats talent as something fixed. This mind-set causes people to believe that it just isn't worth trying hard because they -- or the people they lead -- are naturally smart or not, and therer is little if anything anyone can do about it.

A seires of studies by Columbia University's Carol Dweck shows that when people believe their IQ is unchangeable, "they become too focused on being smart and looking smart rather than on challenging themselves, stretching and expanding their skills, becoming smarter."

Dweck concludes that:

When people believe they are born with natural and unchangeable smarts, it causes them to learn less over time. They don't bother learning new things and improving old skills.


Given all the evidence on the importance of systems, why do so many companies place so much emphasis on getting and keeping great people [or players] and so little on building and sustaining great systems?

A big part of that is Western countries, like the United States, glorify rugged individualism so much that we make a cognitive error. We forget that history, organizational goals, rewards are potent causes of what people and organizations do. We give too much credit to individual heroes when organizations [or teams] do things right and too much blame on individual scapegoats when things go wrong.

[In successful organizations] managers consciously fought their natural tendency to focus on who deserved credit and blame, and instead worked on strengthening the system.

A supervisor explained:

"There are two theories. One says 'there is a problem, let's fix it.' The other says 'we've got a problem, someone is screwing up, let's go beat them up.' To make improvement, we could no longer embrace the second theory. We had to use the first."