Month: June 2013

The Soft-Skills Revolution

BNOnDxhCAAAJvS0Remember back ten years ago when big data and Moneyball analytics changed the sports world?

Consider this your official heads-up, because that kind of disruption is about to happen in business, sales, teaching, and other domains built on soft skills. And it might be because of this little device.

Meet the sociometer. It might look boring, but it provides a window into the most mysterious world of all: the hidden landscape of social interactions that drives creativity, productivity, and success.

The sociometer, worn around the neck like an ID badge, captures tone of voice, activity level, and location. It can tell who you talk to, how often, and for how long. It can tell whether two speakers are face to face, or turned away from each other. It can measure the energy level of an interaction, and use it to determine levels of engagement. Most important, it can combine its data with email and social media to form detailed maps that reveal the inner workings of a team, company, or classroom.

The sociometer was originally developed by Alex “Sandy” Pentland and the folks at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, and further perfected by Ben Waber and other MIT alums who founded Sociometric Solutions. The technology is still evolving, and there are some hurdles to overcome (preserving individual privacy being the most obvious), but it’s easy to imagine how this device might fundamentally change the landscape of work life. Because it’s already starting to happen.

For example: sales firms use the sociometer as a skill-development tool. They show trainees how often top salespeople interrupt clients (hardly ever, it turns out) and then show them precisely where they fall on that scale.

Businesses are using it to maximize team cohesion by altering physical space. For instance, Waber’s studies reveal that 12-person lunch tables lead to significantly more interaction and productivity than four-person lunch tables.

Through an application called Meeting Mediator, the sociometers provide real-time data that shows levels of participation, dominance, and interaction to help people distinguish a healthy, productive meeting from an unhealthy one.

Yes, there’s something Orwellian about the notion that our movements and communications can be tracked and placed into some management algorithm. But if individual privacy concerns can be addressed, I think the potential outweighs the dangers.

We normally think of great social skills as being mysterious and vaguely magical. But when we see like a sociometer — when we see our social world in terms of quantifiable, repeatable patterns — we get a glimpse of the mechanics beneath the magic.  We begin to notice examples of brilliant social thinking all around us.

For example:

• How Steve Jobs designed the Pixar studio building so that all the bathrooms were centrally located — maximizing serendipitous interaction.

• How successful comedy-improv troupes prohibit using the words “no” and “but” and replace them with “yes” and “and.”

• How Amazon’s Jeff Bezos uses a “two-pizza rule” — which states that any team that cannot be fed with two pizzas is too big, and has to be made smaller.

The sociometer may be a new tool, but the most useful truth it will reveal will be an ancient one: we work best in small, cohesive, purposeful tribes.

So here’s a question: would you be willing to wear a sociometer at work?

How Great Teachers See

Identifying-Talent-at-the-Middle-Man-400x230Talent identification is the holy grail of sports, business, parenting, and education. We dream of having the magical ability to quickly and accurately assess who is destined to succeed; to sort the contenders from the pretenders.

Funny thing is, there was once a clever scientist who figured out how to do just that.

His name was Dov Eden; he was an Israeli psychologist who worked with businesses and the military. In the early 1980s Eden published a remarkable study that showed he could predict with uncanny precision which young recruits in the Israeli military would become top performers.

It worked like this: Eden studied the mental and physical aptitudes of one thousand recruits, then selected a handful of soldiers he labeled as “high potential.” Eden informed platoon commanders that they could “expect unusual achievements” from these individuals.

Sure enough, Eden was right. Over the next 11 weeks, Eden’s group performed significantly better than their peers — 9 percent higher on expertise tests and 10 percent higher on weapons evaluation.

It looked for all the world like an impressive display of talent identification — except that it wasn’t.

Because here’s the twist: the “high-potential” soldiers weren’t really high-potential. Eden had selected them completely at random. The real power was in the act of labeling them as high-potential. In sending a simple signal — these people are special.

That signal had created a massive effect in both the mind of the instructor and the learner — a virtuous spiral between teacher and learner that led to the full expression of potential. (The phenomenon, dubbed the Pygmalion Effect, has been repeated many times, and is particularly powerful in educational settings.)

The story, told in Adam Grant’s marvelous new book Give and Take, gives us a glimpse into the power of labels, and how they affect our subconscious. The underlying picture: the unconscious minds of most teachers are naturally thrifty with energy and attention — after all, they don’t have all the time in the world.  They thus look at each new student with a questioning eye: do they have what it takes? Is this a good investment?

The high-potential label is like a flashing Las Vegas sign reading THIS PERSON IS A GREAT INVESTMENT — that triggers a cascade of positive effects. First impressions are uniformly positive. Early mistakes aren’t treated as verdicts; but as learning opportunities. Progress isn’t treated as luck, but as a happy inevitability.

I remember watching Hans Jensen, a remarkable cello teacher at Meadowmount Music School, teach two students. To my eye, one student was clearly better than the other. After the lesson, I asked Hans which student had more potential.

“Who knows?” he said.

I think this is precisely the kind of thinking that distinguishes master teachers. They share a hesitancy to judge; a stubborn, seemingly illogical optimism. They see failures as stepping stones to progress. They begin each new encounter with a single thrilling thought: this person is special.

And then, more often than not, that thought turns out to be true.

Forget 10,000 Hours — Instead, Aim for 10 Minutes

The-Ten-Minute-WorkoutIt’s hard to believe, but it’s been nearly five years since the 10,000-Hour Rule went mainstream. Last week, as if to officially mark the anniversary, more than three hundred coaches, players, general managers, and talent-development experts from around the world gathered at the Leaders in Performance conference in New York. Among this crowd, you might expect to find people singing the praises of the 10,000-Hour Rule.

You’d be wrong.

A significant number disliked it, because they saw the rule creating a mindless culture of hour-counting. They saw sports federations building programs around the metric, using it as the sole measure of progress.

“It’s absolutely nuts,” the head of one nation’s soccer federation told me. “Coaches are tracking practice hours and the athletes are clocking in and out with time cards like they’re working on an assembly line. There’s no ownership, no creativity.”

The science behind the 10,000-Hour rule has been subject to debate, and rightly so, because talent is more complex than any one measure. For example, how do you calibrate the impact of Warren Buffett’s childhood paper route on his temperament and business skills? How do you count the hours the young Keith Richards spent listening to blues records and falling in love with them?

The real issue here, however, is that the the 10,000-Hour rule is not really about quantity. It’s about the power of sharp, focused, high-quality practice. It’s about the massive learning differences created by intense efforts within highly engaging practice environments. We see this in the habits of high-performing groups, many of whom build their skills through a combination of short, sharp sessions and lots of restorative rest.

For example, at La Masia, the training academy that has produced the majority of Barcelona’s world-beating soccer team, the schedule calls for organized training a mere 70 minutes per day — a figure that most U.S. travel soccer coaches would scoff at as being insufficient.  But here’s the thing: it’s a world-class 70 minutes: a razor-sharp, full-tilt, meticulously planned session with far more content and engagement than any mundane, exhausting three-hour practice.

The other benefit of this approach is that it frees the learners to spend time on their own. Real learning doesn’t happen just through organized drills; most of it happens in the off hours, when you’re fooling around, inventing games, competing, experimenting, mimicking, grappling with problems and inventing solutions. When you’re wholly engaged in the art of simple, intense play.

So perhaps a solution is to ignore the 10,000-Hour Rule and instead embrace the 10-Minute Rule. Which has three elements:

  • 1) Focus: pick out a target skill — a single chunk you want to work on.
  • 2) Super-high intensity
  • 3) Rest: only do it when you’re fresh. If you’re exhausted, quit.

In other words: don’t approach practice like a factory worker logging hours. Instead, think like an opportunist. Be an entrepreneur.