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Colvin on World-Class Performance, Now and as the Computers Take Over

Geoffrey Colvin

(Blogrige) – Audience members at the recent Quest for Excellence® Conference were asked to ponder two questions from keynote speaker Geoff Colvin senior editor at large for Fortune magazine.

  • Where does world-class performance really come from? and
  • What will people do better than computers? Or, phrased in a better way, according to Colvin, what are humans most driven to do?

For the answer to the first question, Colvin said, we all carry around deep-seated feelings; many people think the answer is hard work, but lots of people work incredibly hard at what they do, yet are not considered world-class performers.

Others believe world-class performers must have massive IQs or exceptional mental acuity/memory, but, Colvin said, this is only part of the answer, as we all know very successful people who may not be the brightest among their peers.

The most frequent answer is innate talent, but even this can’t be the real explanation, said Colvin, as per research, most child prodigies don’t go on to become adult world-class great or most adult world-class performers were not incredibly talented as children.

The question about the origin of world-class performance really matters, said Colvin, because “in every realm in which there is competition, standards are rising,” from infotech devices, to cars that can go more miles than they could just 10 years ago, to washing machines that now use less detergent and water and get clothes cleaner than their previous models.

“Everywhere we look, standards are rising, and they are rising in human terms also. . . . Labor markets used to be local, regional. Now when most of our work is information-based . . . anybody in the world can do it. In fact, increasingly, we all have to be world-class great because we’re competing with everyone in the world. . . . So we really have to understand in a world of rising standards, where does great performance really come from,” he said.

So, what’s the answer?

Colvin said 30+ years of good research across industries points to something called “deliberate practice”—practicing a specific skill, over and over, and getting better at it each time. Colvin further defined “deliberate practice” as practice that

  1. Is designed specifically to improve your performance at this moment in your development. The deliberate practice will change as you advance and become better.
  2. Pushes you just beyond your current abilities. “It doesn’t push you way beyond your current abilities because then you’re just lost,” he said; “And it doesn’t allow you to operate just within your current abilities because then you don’t grow.”
  3. Can be repeated a lot. Researchers have found that high repetition actually affects the physical nature of the brain, Colvin said.
  4. Includes continual feedback. Added Colvin, “You can’t get better if you don’t know how you’re doing.”

Colvin said that studies have shown that great performance due to deliberate practice seems to be unlimited. “As long as you keep doing that stuff, you can keep getting better. . . . As long as we continue with the deliberate practices, we can continue to do these things to ages that conventional wisdom would say we can’t.”

Individuals, teams, and organizations can all benefit from deliberate practice, said Colvin, although many organizations tend to ignore its principles. He offered examples of teams working together in ways they never had before with the principles of deliberate practice: high repetition, constant input, lots of feedback, and real-time results.

(As Baldrige Award applicants and examiners know, expert feedback to help organizations improve is a key offering of the Baldrige Program—as part of both the traditional Baldrige Award process and the non-award-based Baldrige Collaborative Assessment. Baldrige feedback reports detail an organization’s key strengths and opportunities for improvement.)

Now that we know how to achieve world-class great today, Colvin said, we must look to the future: “The skills the economy values highly are changing in a historic way. . . . Over and over, we’re seeing technology taking over jobs that people used to do. People will still be valuable, but we better figure out what skills the economy will value as we go forward because those are the ones that we have to get world-class great at.”

Colvin said, we must ask ourselves, “What are the things because of our deepest most essential human nature, . . . we will insist be done by people even if computers can do them.” Those innate human skills are the ability to

  • Empathize, which means discerning the thoughts and feelings of someone else and responding appropriately
  • Work in groups
  • Tell stories
  • Solve problems creatively
  • Build relationships

“Many employers today emphasize these factors in people they are seeking. More and more employers understand that these skills . . . of human interaction are going to be most valuable,” he said.

In summarizing how to be world-class great today and tomorrow, Colvin inspired the audience to dream big: “If you believe that you can become better . . . than you will get past inevitable difficulties and at least have the chance to become world-class great. . . . Great performance is not ordained for the pre-ordained few. It is available to you and everyone.”

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