Sometimes we perceive the concept of high performance as something so mysterious or complex that it seems unachievable. That is why Geoff Colvin's book, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, is so powerful, and so relevant in today's competitive work environment.
Colvin posits, without denying its importance, that natural talent alone is not enough. According to his research, "deliberate practice" or focused concentration, amassing a body of knowledge in a particular field and cultivating the ability to bring that knowledge to bear at critical moments are the keys to high performance. His theory holds important implications for those in local, state and federal government.
Colvin first discusses what distinguishes deliberate practice from the innate talent and routine practice so many of us perceive as the best route to outstanding performance. He theorizes that deliberate practice results in high achievement because:
Deliberate practice is only the first step toward achieving high performance. Colvin goes on to say that top professionals accomplish more because they use the knowledge they've amassed in a field, or what Colvin calls "domain knowledge," to:
One powerful example of how deliberate practice leads to domain knowledge and, ultimately, to results that matter is citizen engagement.
No matter how smart or talented we are, artfully guiding a plurality of residents through civil discourse that results in collaboration and compromise, rather than chaos, requires a body of knowledge inherent to few of us. To achieve high levels of accomplishment in this area, we must master the ability to:
Acquiring this knowledge requires sustained practice. We must attend endless council and community meetings. We must dial up our communications and psychological skills. And finally, we must challenge ourselves by working with groups until we master the art of engaging participants in productive discourse.
All levels of government operate in a wide variety of arenas, and citizen engagement is only one. As I read Colvin's book, I thought about all the things that governments do and wondered how leaders can build a cohesive whole from an organization in which there's a high concentration of domain-specific top performers. It occurred to me that this could be where Colvin's theory falls short.
I then began to think about the role of "conductor" as a potential knowledge domain. In The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Culture, author Frans Johansson explains how a successful conductor can foster an organizational culture that encourages cross-domain exploration and new approaches to complex, multidisciplinary issues. In this kind of environment, an individual who has amassed extensive knowledge in the domain of leadership becomes even more important.
Achieving the outcomes we want in the areas that matter most to citizens - public safety, jobs creation, community and economic development, education, health care and the environment - requires an organization that attracts and retains individuals with extensive knowledge and experience. Connecting these areas of domain knowledge, however, requires someone capable of much more than just managing an organization; it requires an experienced, knowledgeable conductor who can create a whole that is consistently greater than the sum of its parts.
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