In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell introduced the world to the 10,000-hour rule. As he described it, world class talents like Bill Gates, The Beatles and chess grandmasters attained their great prowess only after 10,000 hours of practice. The message was that if you are willing to put in the time, you can achieve greatness as well.
Well, not exactly. The 10,000-hour concept is based on the work of Anders Ericsson, who studied not just any kind of practice, but deliberate practice. To achieve a high level of excellence, you must do more than merely show up. In fact, research shows that you can actually get worse with experience.
Yet as Ericsson explains in his new book, Peak, the core principle remains valid. The only way to become a top performer is through practice. It is not unusual for high school athletes today to perform at what would have been considered Olympic level ability a century ago. So clearly, natural talent only goes so far. Here’s what will take you the rest of the way.
Our education system was designed for the 20th century. It is mostly focused on teaching kids how to retain information and manipulate numbers. It regularly tests these abilities and, if you do well, you are promised to get into a good college, have a successful career and live a happy, prosperous life.
Unfortunately, those promises have become empty. Today, when we all carry around supercomputers in our pocket, tasks like remembering facts and doing long division have largely been automated. The truth is, there is little that we learned in school that can’t now be handled with a quick Google search and an Excel spreadsheet.
Clearly, we need to rethink education. Our kids will face a much different world than we live in now. In fact, a study at Oxford concluded that nearly half of the jobs that exist today will be automated in the next 20 years. To prepare for the future, we need to replace our regimented education system with one that fosters skills like teamwork, communication and exploration.
At the center of every significant innovation is always an idea. Clarence Birdseye’s idea about freezing fish revolutionized the food industry and American diets. Charles Schwab’s idea about flat commissions changed investing forever. Steve Jobs idea about creating a device that could hold 1000 songs in your pocket turned around Apple’s fortunes.
Yet we shouldn’t confuse a great idea with where it came from. Truly useful ideas don’t arise from out of the ether or through fancy techniques like brainstorming or divergent thinking. The best ideas come in response to an important problem and thrive under constraints.
In researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I found that the most innovative firms often aren’t any more creative or even that they are better at solving problems. Rather, it was how they aggressively seek out new problems to solve that made all the difference. The truth is that if you want to create a truly innovative culture you shouldn’t glorify ideas, but problems.
All too often, people want to see entrepreneurship as if it were an action movie. The hero, transformed by a great moment of epiphany, champions his idea despite being besieged on all sides by those who seek to thwart him. He prevails in the end by being loyal and true, never wavering from his initial vision.
That’s a dangerous fantasy. As Silicon Valley startup guru Steve Blank has often noted, a startup is essentially a search for a sustainable business model. It’s not like an episode of Mission Impossible, where you have a clear and concrete objective and execute your plan with split-second precision.
In fact, it’s more like a role playing game. There are certain rules to play by, but no clear path forward or ending sequence (except, of course, for bankruptcy). Instead, you have to progress through a series of challenges while earning experience and artifacts along the way. In the end, everyone needs to forge their own path, but here are 4 things you should know going in.
Work used to be pretty simple. You got up in the morning, did your job and came home at the end of the day. Most people spent their whole career doing pretty much the same thing for the same employer. They were judged by their skill, diligence and seniority and, at the end of it all, they looked forward to a peaceful retirement.
Today, those seem like quaint notions. Nobody spends an entire career doing the same job the same way anymore. In fact, a recent study at Oxford found that as many as almost half of the jobs in the US are at risk of being automated. A report by Deloitte also finds that technology is significantly changing how organizations function.
These trends are often attributed to artificial intelligence and machine learning, but that misses a huge part of the story. The truth is that the real shift has less to do with any single branch of information technology and more to do with how three digital forces are beginning to pervade everything else. As it turns out, our digital future is all too human.
Today, even an ordinary teenager with a smartphone has almost godlike power over information. With a few swipes and clicks, anybody can access the world’s information, use advanced tools to analyze its meaning and share it with anyone else. That’s really changed how we innovate.
So it’s strange that the practice of science has, for the most part, been stuck in the dark ages. The process of research, peer review and publication remains almost as slow and cumbersome as it was decades ago, which hinders our ability to turn new discoveries into useful applications.
That may be changing though. Taking a page from the open source movement, there are a number of efforts underway to aggregate the latest knowledge and make it available to anyone who wants to use it. From cancer research and materials science to psychological profiles, these new data sets will enable and empower innovation like never before.
The garage startup has become as much of an American icon in the twenty first century as the automobile and the drive-in were to earlier generations. The idea that anyone with an idea can change the world is as romantic as democracy itself, but it’s not altogether true. A garage startup only works if there is existing technology to build on top of.
The problem is that every technology eventually runs out of steam. When that happens, progress will grind to a halt without a significant breakthrough. As technology becomes more complex, that type of advancement becomes so hard to achieve that it becomes out of reach for any single organization, much less a few guys in a garage.
That is essentially where we are with energy storage. Lithium-ion, the 40 year-old technology that powers everything from smartphones to electric cars is nearing its theoretical limits just as the renewable energy revolution is demanding cheaper batteries that can store more energy at lower cost. Solving problems like these requires a massively collaborative approach.
Everybody loves a star performer, whether it’s Lebron James, Jack Welch or Yo-Yo Ma, individual achievement is always held in the highest regard. So it’s not surprising that managers seek to stock their organization with hard driving “A” players, who went to top schools and have impressive resumes.
Yet the truth is that today high value work is most often done in teams. It wasn’t always this way. The journal Nature noted that until the 1920’s most scientific papers only had a single author, but by the 1950s that co-authorship became the norm and, today, the average paper has four times as many authors as it back then.
Clearly there’s been a big shift from individual performance to teamwork. To solve complex problems, you don’t need the best people, you need the best teams and that means we need to change the way we evaluate, recruit, manage and train employees. Put simply, working in a team takes different skills than working alone. Here are three things you should look for.
In 1900, 30 million people in the United States were farmers, but by 1990 that number had fallen to under 3 million even as the population more than tripled. So, in a matter of speaking, 90% of American agriculture workers lost their jobs, mostly due to automation. Yet somehow, the twentieth century was seen as an era of unprecedented prosperity.
In the decades to come, we are likely to see similar shifts. Today, just like then, many people’s jobs will soon taken over by machines and many of the jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet. That inspires fear in some, excitement in others, but everybody will need to plan for a future that we can barely comprehend today.
This creates a dilemma for leaders. Clearly, any enterprise that doesn’t embrace automation won’t be able to survive any better than a farmer with a horse drawn plow. At the same time, managers need to continue to motivate employees who fear their jobs being replaced by robots. Clearly, leaders are going to rethink strategy in the age of automation.
Ten years ago, social media was in its infancy. Nobody even heard of mobile marketing, content marketing or big data. The iPhone hadn’t even been launched yet. If you took a reasonably competent marketer from 2007 and transported her to today, much of what she knew about her job would be irrelevant.
We’re at a similar point now. Many of the most powerful technologies that will shape marketing over the next ten years are just emerging and many marketers will be left behind. Clearly, anybody who thinks that they can get by doing more of what they’re doing today is kidding themselves.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to perfectly predict the future, but we can look at today’s technology and make some basic judgments. Big data and artificial intelligence will become much more powerful and interact more completely with the physical world. That, in turn, will transform how we identify and serve customers to something very different from today.