The Power of EnvironmentPosted: January 23, 2012
I read an article by Seth Godin the other day. In it he said that the average worker is going straight to the bottom. The workplace has changed so much over recent time, that workers should not be content with taking orders and everyone should make themselves unique and different so people seek out their specific set of skills. If he is correct then this will be a challenge to every company that says ‘our people are our greatest asset’. I don’t think it is as black and white as the article suggests, but I do think that business environment has changed in terms of expectations and speed, and the average worker needs to figure out how they contribute more effectively. However, I also believe that some of that responsibility lies with the enterprise, and their need to change their environment to help employees.
In my previous post I wrote about the fact that talent isn’t as innate as we think, and that the only way to ‘world-class’ and becoming an expert is based on practice. Purposeful practice. And, lots of it (approximately 10 years of hard, deliberate practice). In reading around the topic it became clear that many of the stories describing the path to success seemed to be centre around a couple of things. A person who was to become the future star with a desire and motivation to succeed that was often developed as a result of an early influence in their life. And an environment that was constructed by circumstances often including the input of a third party who played a key role to the main protagonist. Matthew Syed put it well when he said, ‘Child prodigies do not have unusual genes; they have unusual upbringings’.
The environments within these stories turned out to be unique and extreme in some way that helps the future star become the person they become. An environment so powerful that the future star develops a dedication, the skills, the support and the opportunities to rise to the very top of their chosen pursuit.
There are lessons in these stories to help us shape our own environments to develop the talent of our people. We may not be starting with susceptible kids who at the age of 3 decide that they want to be the future star of formula one or the next mozart, but there are people who, with the right conditions, can strive to be the best. We always have an opportunity to improve and excel regardless of when and where we start. As leaders it is important to recognise the environment that we really find ourselves in. Max De Pree in his book Leadership Jazz said ‘People must be able to pursue their potential’. It all comes down to environment and opportunity.
Albert Einstein said, ‘I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn’.
What I find most interesting about the stories of talent and determination I’ve examined is that one or more of the elements of any of the backgrounds has been completely uncompromising. The fathers of sporting prodigies such as Venus and Serena Williams, or Tiger Woods, or Lewis Hamilton created circumstance of every situation for helping their children develop mentally and physically. These environments were based around extreme and exacting standards. There was little compromise. They helped focus on their weaknesses to develop, but also helped them shape an utter belief that they were meant to be part of the elite. They relied on the idea that practice makes perfect, and nothing but perfection was acceptable. Does this sound like your workplace?
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit. ~ Aristotle
Standards such as these are often encountered in the business world too. Two examples spring to mind: IBM and Apple.
For IBM they needed to transform themselves from the mainframe supplier of hardware to a services based company that used the expertise to shape solutions. They created an environment based on values and principles that were upheld from Lou Gerstner’s vision. The change required a move away from the aggressive sales approach of product and a move towards a more service-based culture developing and delivering solutions, and relationships. Dee Hock’s quote describes the problem for most of us in the enterprise space well:
The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out. ~ Dee Hock
Underneath all the sophisticated processes, Lou Gerstner concluded, there is always the company’s sense of values and identity. This is where he decided to focus. In his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, he said, “It took me to age fifty-five to figure that out. I always viewed culture as one of those things you talked about, like marketing and advertising. It was one of the tools that a manager had at his or her disposal when you think about an enterprise.” He added, “The thing I have learned at IBM is that culture is everything”.
They spent years resetting the standards and upholding the expectations required. I think this is a key enabler for performance. It is rare to see it upheld. It is more likely to be talked about and dismissed like Gerstner refers to.
The other example (and there are many more) is Apple. Since his death, Steve Jobs has had many things written about him. Not least has been about his approach to leadership and management. He had a pursuit for perfection. It is written that his ego drove him in a way that ensured that everything about the product created by Apple was exact. He worked tirelessly to be the best and he held the whole of the company to his very high standards. Nothing was ever good enough and he constantly challenged to improve. It will be interesting to see if the environment continues.
Enabling Fast Feedback – To stretch, fail and learn
The complexities and dynamics of how a single person’s performance can be linked with the entire performance of an enterprise is too great. There needs to be another way of getting more direct feedback on performance, and what can be done to improve.
As business leaders or managers, providing fast feedback is critical for the growth of team members. This is what the environments of the elite did for them. Often we can go weeks, months or, in some extreme cases, years without giving real feedback on the work our people do and how they are performing it. We are often very critical of the results delivered by people, but not the practice that generated the result. This needs remedying, and we also need to create environments outside of the day-to-day job to develop skills.
Now, I’m not of the opinion that you only learn from failure. Learning from success is also useful, and good for the self-esteem. But, what I am a fan of is that you learn more from the situations where you have been stretched and tested. Max De Pree said ‘We need to learn to think in terms of discovery. Once a discovery is made, we need to make the right connections and to give relevance in our current environment’. This means we need to develop a learning culture.
Julia Cameron once said that ‘Making a piece of art requires a myriad tiny steps’. Many little lessons need to put together to develop a masterpiece or an outstanding performance. This is all the work that is done behind the scene that often goes unnoticed. People need an environment where they can make mistakes, gain feedback and improve. This needs to happen regularly. In sport, this is the training ground.
In business, we don’t have training grounds. We are always on. We don’t get the time and luxury of professional athletes. We are less tolerant of failure in business like sports fans are in the big games. Even Michael Jordan regales stories of missing some really important points in crucial games on his way to becoming one of the greatest. Maybe this is something we need to improve upon.
Developing the business training grounds is necessary. We need to develop communities of practice that enable us to learn and improve in a safe but challenging environment. Maybe in teams and projects outside of the normal spotlight. The problem is that many enterprises have developed a fixed mindset culture. One where a commitment made (however realistic or not) is one that must be met at all cost or at least expectations managed appropriately. And there is no room to learn or improve when you are on one of these projects. The fear of failure permeates everything and most people do things within their own comfort zone so that they are not to blame or culpable within a project that is destined to hit the rocks. This means that the project will never get the best and most courageous ideas or the most effort invested in it. In a sense, they are set up to fail because of mindset.
Making the Time
If the numbers are to be believed and it takes 10,000 hours to develop a world-class expertise in sports, arts, business or any other discipline, what does it mean in terms of supporting the development of our people? Remember the Dee Hock quote? The skills that have already been developed in our existing workforce may no longer all be relevant. Some will be, but the business environment has changed. The business environment will continue to change. Traditional companies are already struggling. Kodak anyone?
We know teachers are already teaching students skills that will help them deal with jobs and technology that don’t exist yet. We need to be doing the same in business. This means unlearning some stuff that we’ve always known to be right (or at least we thought we did!). We need to prepare people for uncertainty. We need to encourage and support people to experiment and improve for the good of our companies. We need to create a culture of critical thinkers. This requires a change in our environment.
People will need time and space to improve. It might not require 10,000 hours for everyone in an organisation, but it will take committed time nonetheless. It means that we need the right influences in our organisation that represents a set of exacting standards that helps us develop. But it also requires a strategy for developing a new set of skills, and releasing the latent potential within the organisation.
The world of business is moving super fast, and the practice that is required to remain world class is increasing. We might not think the kids coming out of college are quite ready to run our businesses, but they are more savvy with technology than most of our workforces. They might not understand the politics of our organisations or the nuances of managing a message, but they certainly know how to connect with people around the world and are more ‘agile’ than most middle-aged business folks. They know how to communicate in 140 characters or less. Their environment is one of ubiquitous technology, speed and communication. This is what Godin was referring to, I believe. They are already many hours ahead of us on their way to 10,000.
Our environments need to cultivate learning and skills acquisition that help all levels of an organisation improve. Not just the graduates, or apprentices. Not just the people in the talent pools. Nor just the workers. This includes leaders and followers alike. It includes the young and the old. We are all products of our environments. So, our results depend on our ability to create the best environments for today.