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Book review: Talent is overrated (and deliberate practice is hard)

Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else

By Geoff Colvin Portfolio $28.50

When he's not conducting the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, the brilliant Benjamin Zander is inspiring business types on the lecture circuit. During his talks, Zander asks if anyone's celebrating a birthday. The birthday boy or girl gets called on stage and Zander tells his audience to sing a song. On cue, everyone spontaneously sings Happy Birthday.

Zander applauds and tells everyone they did a good job. And then he tells the audience they can do better. So try again. Sing the song, only this time, do it better. Now … go!

Of course, no one sings. There's complete silence. After a few awkward moments, Zander explains why. When everyone knows what to do and what's expected, we do it easily, we do it together and we do it without being led. But when we don't understand what's expected, when we're only told in vague terms to do better, work smarter or faster, we're paralyzed.

And this, says author Geoff Colvin, is pretty much the approach most organizations take when it comes to innovation. "Leaders exhort the troops to be innovative, but no one understands clearly what that means," says Colvin, senior editor at large with FORTUNE magazine.

"Unsure where to go, they go nowhere."

Or we strike off and out in a million different directions that lead nowhere and waste a whole lot of time, effort and money. So here's the better idea. Try being specific. Tell us what kind of innovation would be most valuable. Link innovation to the priorities of our organization so we know exactly where doing something new, different and better will have the greatest impact.

Along with pointing us in the right direction, organizations need to clear away some well- entrenched myths surrounding innovation. Creativity is not some mysterious gift, a rare talent that only a select few are born with. Don't bank on spontaneous out-of-the-blue eureka moments to bring breakthrough innovations. And it turns out you can never get too close to a problem. Resist the urge to bring in outsiders and fresh pairs of eyes who know little or nothing about the problem.

"The evidence shows that in finding creative solutions to problems, knowledge — the more the better — is your friend, not your enemy."

The greatest innovators in a wide range of fields all share one common characteristic, says Colvin. "They spent many years in intensive preparation before making any kind of creative breakthrough. Great innovations are roses that bloom after long and careful cultivation."

So if you want to cultivate a culture of innovation at work, give folks the time, space and freedom to dive deep and gain in-depth domain knowledge. It's a knowledge that can only be developed through deliberate practice.

Neither work nor play, deliberate practice is all about staying focused on improving performance. Feedback on results is continuously available. It's mentally demanding and exhausting. And it's not much fun, which is why so few of us are world-class performers.

Not surprisingly, deliberate practice is fuelled by intrinsic motivation.

"If the activities that lead to greatness were easy and fun, then everyone would do them and they would not distinguish the best from the rest," says Colvin. "The reality that deliberate practice is hard can even be seen as good news. It means that most people won't do it. So your willingness to do it will distinguish you all the more."

For organizations that are serious about innovation and world-class performance, find and nurture your resident experts who possess the drive and passion for deliberate practice. Point your great performers in the right direction. And then turn them loose.

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