Is Talent or Practice More Important to Success?

Tuesday, December 04, 2012 | Category :

by Ross Crooke

In London this week, Judit Polgar will take on eight of the best players in the world as part of the London Chess Classic. The only female competing against the World Champion, the World Number One and two former Number Ones, Judit’s rise to Super Grand Master has been an extraordinary story. By the age of twelve, Judit Polgar was already better at chess than any human had been at that age. At age 15 she beat Bobby Fischer's record to become the youngest person ever to achieve the Grandmaster title.

Her father Laszlo, an educational psychologist, wanted to demonstrate that ‘talent’ is not a naturally occurring or genetically created phenomenon, but could be achieved by anyone given practice. Laszlo chose chess because the game is considered a pinnacle of intellect, and because results are easily compared and measured. And Laszlo did not do it just once, but three times! His eldest daughter, Zsuzsa, became a Grandmaster and woman's World Champion and his middle daughter, Zsofia, achieved the title of International Chess Master.

Also in London, 32 year-old Kweku M. Adoboli was recently jailed for seven years following the $2.3bn losses which brought Swiss Bank UBS to its knees. Up until the discovery of the loss he was seen as a bright talent, earning over half a million dollars a year, and marked out as a ‘rising star’. Identified as a future leader and enrolled in the prestigious Ascent programme, Adoboli’s appraisals glowed with praise of his abilities.

Onlookers at the trial were confused, as while the prosecution painted his crimes as an attempt to boost his bonus, many character references repeatedly praised his honesty, generosity and dependability – making him out to be the embodiment of a loyal, dedicated employee who showed huge devotion to the bank.

BTS’ Founder and CEO, Henrik Ekelund posed the question in the BTS Strategy Execution Blog – “Is strategy or execution more important to success?” The stories of Adoboli and Polgar perhaps give some answers to whether practice or talent is more important to success.

The Dangers of the War for Talent

In 2001, McKinsey & Company published “The War for Talent” and the phrase has reverberated throughout the business world since it was coined. The theory that all humans have a craving to be appreciated, has led to ‘talent’ being lavished with praise and encouragement more than ever for the last decade. In the new era of talent management, the report says “we should shower our top performers with opportunities and recognition.” Leaders are encouraged to, “bet on the natural athletes, the ones with the strongest intrinsic skills.”

In a New Yorker article Malcolm Gladwell exposed Enron as the “ultimate talent company”. Top performers were rewarded inordinately, and promoted without regard for seniority or experience. Enron’s “star system”, Gladwell concluded, created an environment where top performers were fawned over and over-indulged – a narcissistic organisation where leaders took more credit for success than was legitimate, and did not acknowledge responsibility for failures.

Carol Dweck, a Professor at Stanford University and one of the leading researchers in motivation helps explain the dangers of the ‘War for Talent’ approach. Individuals either have a growth mindset – believing everyone has the ability to grow through experience, effort, dedication – or they believe that these are all impossible to change. The ‘War for Talent’ promotes a fixed mindset – where people believe they have fixed abilities, talent and intelligence.

Through a series of experiments Dweck has shown the difference between ‘talent’ praise and ‘effort’ praise. “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this!” was shown consistently to produce very different behaviours, compared to “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must have tried really hard!”

Firstly, after completing a task and receiving ‘talent’ praise, when given the option of a difficult subsequent task, or an easy one, they choose the easy one. “They want to keep looking smart – they want to keep the label” says Dweck.

Secondly, with more difficult tasks, the ‘talent’ group believed that struggling meant that they weren’t smart at all – so their confidence and self-esteem plummeted. On the other hand the ‘effort’ group were thinking “These problems are harder, and you succeed through effort – I need more of this!”

The third observation was that it led them to lie. 40% of those whose intelligence was praised overstated their scores to peers. “We took ordinary children, and turned them into liars!” Dweck observed. Could constant ‘talent’ praise have driven Adoboli to push the boundaries further and further?

For Lazlo, genius is created through practice and experience. His daughters practiced chess for up to six hours a day, and by early teens each of them was world class. In his book, Outliers, Gladwell finds examples in many different fields – showing that extraordinary performance is the result of many thousand hours of practice instead of simply innate ‘genius’. However, practice is not just experience – doing the same task for years doesn’t automatically make an expert, just as driving to work every day does not get you any closer to being a Formula 1 driver.

Practice needs to be purposeful, deliberate, and it needs to incorporate feedback. Top coaches spend years breaking down, and retraining already talented players to standardise their stroke, shot or movement. Why? It is so that they can reach even higher levels through continually monitoring the results and making adjustments. Without feedback and a standardized method, it’s extremely difficult to recognise areas for improvement.

Man Vs. Machine

For many years, computers have competed with chess players with a battle of strategy and logic playing out between giant super-computers and humans. When Gary Kasparov faced IBM’s Deep Blue for the first time, it was one of the most anticipated chess matches in history. For six games over eight days, the battle between man and machine was beamed around the world. A machine capable of calculating 100 million positions per second was defeated by a man who could process only three moves per second.

The advantage that Kasparov had over the machine was explained by Gary Klein, a New York psychologist  - “Deep Blue had all the talent, Kasparov had the knowledge. He understood the essence of the end game in a way the computer did not. Its computational power was not enough to overcome Kasparov’s experience and intuitive appreciation of where the pieces should go.” When Kasparov faced Deep Blue again 15 months later, Kasparov was crushed. Why? It wasn’t because the computer was now capable of 200 million positions per second, but because Klein enabled it to draw on the moves of all Grand Masters over the last 100 years.

Klein studied decision-making by top professionals across many fields – doctors, fire-fighters, military commanders – and found that they made better, faster decisions through being able to sense patterns based on many years of experience and practice. They make decisions that to everyone else appear to be ‘gut feel’ or a ‘sixth sense’. Roger Federer returns serves with quicker reactions, not because he has faster reactions, but because he can extract more information from the patterns of his opponent, the racket and the ball – and process them faster.

Recognising these patterns is critical in a complex business environment as well – how should an oil major react to radical new environmental regulation? What is the impact on shopper behaviour from a retailer shifting the mix on the shelf? How do you get the very best out of your new team? How do you lead and influence in a matrix organisation?

Practice and the Value of a Business Simulation

Business Simulations have been used as an important tool to rapidly build experience, create opportunities for deliberate practice, give feedback and standardise methods. A good simulation will enable participants to see what good looks like, assess the performance gap, and adjust based on results in a controlled environment. The more complex a process, the more value a business simulation brings – allowing feedback that is often impossible to achieve in real life, or without many years. For example, decisions taken at the very early stages of a multi-year project, or in a business unit of a huge complex multinational are extremely difficult to fully appreciate as part of the wider context.

In the words of William D. Green, CEO at Accenture, “I believe we have an obligation to bring along the next generation so that they’re prepared for the jobs before they have to step into them…How do you make people capable of doing the job in a dramatically faster rate than simply allowing them to gain experience on the job?  The key seems to be business simulations.”

So, as leaders, which type of praise – ‘talent’ or ‘effort’ – do you use most often? Does your organisation promote a ‘growth’ or ‘fixed’ mindset? What opportunities do people in your organisation have for deliberate practice?

About the Author: Ross Crooke is a Vice President at BTS.


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