Researching Elite Performance In the last blog I discussed how serendipity can be shaped through our use of time (who we associate with), finding and pursuing passion in our work, and small moves smartly made. I closed by commenting on how surprised I was that Bob Wilson came out as a natural entrepreneur. Floyd made a pivotal observations about how ‘we are not defined by the role that we do but who we are in that role’ and in effect seemed to be hinting that elite performance is sociological as well as psychological by nature. My apologies Floyd I then, must have had time on my hand, and got a bit carried away with my response. I also posed a couple of questions what is it about sport and elite performance that develops entrepreneurial talent and what are the implications of the 2012 legacy. Another question was how would you compare the elite performers in sports to the elite performers in business? On that Floyd’s response was that ‘there is a common thread/theme that runs between all individuals, teams, and organisations that are elite.’ The difference between them in Floyd’s opinion is minimal. Now I don’t entirely agree on that and will pick that hot potato up towards the end of the discussion over the next week. An aside which will be returned to later and worth a posting in its own right is ‘how come the number of Floyd’s ex SAS colleagues who have run their own businesses or performed significantly in business is staggering.’ On reflection, mea culpa, I have jumped ahead. So in this post I’d like to take a step back before revealing my learning from Bob Wilson by outlining the approach taken to the research. About the research approach my view is that the major problem relating to drawing conclusions about elite performance, talent and success is that people, particularly experts tend to view issues from their own experiences, and have hobbyhorses. Situations and success too often only make perfect sense when you’re looking back and apply ‘retrospective coherence’. Success and winning though the obvious outcomes are rarely simple to explain away. Behaviour does not take place in isolation but is mediated by the context. This is a point underlined by Times journalist Matthew Syed in his outstanding book Bounce. Reflecting on his own rise to fame, modest as he is like many great champions, he argues that we like to think of sport as a meritocracy- where achievement is driven by ability and hard work – but it is nothing of the sort. As he writes ‘practically every man or woman who triumphs against the odds, is on closer inspection a beneficiary of unusual circumstances, The delusion lies in focussing on the individuality of their triumph without perceiving –or bothering to look for the powerful opportunities stacked in their favour.’ Ericsson a psychologist specialising in success uses the term iceberg illusion in another context to describe how when we witness extraordinary feats we are witnessing the end product of a process measured in years. We miss out on understanding the ecology or sociology of success, what Matthew Syed describes in one chapter as the hidden logic of success. So what made me believe I could be more precise in identifying the personality characteristics and Talents that distinguish elite performers, World champions, CEO’s and those who have attained the top of their field from the rest? The short answer is firstly the psychological perspective the Saville Wave (More of which later and if you are interested in this area may I recommend a tour of their website http://www.savilleconsulting.com) hasn’t been used pervasively at this level. However psychometric tests can predict workplace effectiveness in other roles so why wouldn’t they work in elite areas to help us get to grips with the mind of a champion? Also there is no other test that I know of that has been designed for the 21st century World of Work and has specifically researched and identified entrepreneurial skills. Well if there is do let me know. – I’m missing a trick. Secondly I returned to my roots as a behavioural scientist (I started my career by undertaking an ethnographic study of the Xerox Sales Culture) in adopting a derivative of action research as one element of the research methodology. This approach originated through social scientist Kurt Lewin (along with a former PsyOps specialist from the Korean War he was one of the founders of Organisation Development) who came up with the elegant formula that behaviour is a function of the person and the situation. In simple terms, action research for him was best characterised as “learning by doing” and about creating change. It’s accepted that the researcher, is not neutral, but openly acknowledges their bias. The developmental process is of following the idea, seeing how it goes, and continually checking whether it is in line with what you wish to happen. In terms of action research the process is that I have tried to be open minded but not so open minded as Eysenck a famous psychologist once said on TV to an obtuse interviewer, so open minded that my brains have fallen out .At a personal level I accept too I am more than academically interested in the findings from the research and process of writing. I want to use the results to make me more productive and learn from the best in their field. As, showing my age film critic Barry Norman used to say, ’and why not?’ Well what do you do after a brain tumour? You might as my thoughts were do something you are passionate about, know something that has the potential to create significant value and change. In summary then without getting too academic about it, the intent from the outset was to blend quantitative with qualitative methods and go for a pragmatic action research outcome. With the emphasis in the first instance personal action learning …..that would have a wider validity and usefulness for others in enhancing their effectiveness. In this way the output of the research was designed to encourage the debate as to precisely how does personality at work contributes to success at elite levels. What are the common factors across disciplines and where are the differences? Are all World champions made of the same ‘right stuff’, what is the role of personality and talent and how is it guided by nature via nurture? These were the original aims. I was also interested in the degree to which ordinary people could learn from legends and the extent to which there really was and is a War for Talent.’
Richard thank you for your thoughts so far and I am very interested in the next instalment. My thought so far on what you have covered are that psychometrics are a guide ONLY, they give a picture of where someone may like to perform and their type and traits at a given moment in time. However, what they do not show is a person’s adaptability and ability to work outside their preferred operating system. In short we answer questions based on our super strengths, our best way of operating. They do not always show us the flexibility we have to adapt and change our styles to obtain the results/Win. My thoughts are that there are a number of basic areas of performance that I try to be expert in. I will explain what these are for me at a later date. However, by doing these basic things well it gives me flexibility to adapt to the needs of the situation and be creative where necessary, it enables me to compassionate and ruthless if I need to be. It allows me to understand the risks involved and also to seek the correct support when I am vulnerable. Vulnerability is key, it is not something to be afraid of, it is a start point from which to work from. Those individuals with the most flexibility control the system. Therefore my question would be how do we capture not only someone’s strengths in a questionnaire/analysis but their adaptability because surley adaptability is the key to success?