The word talent refers to natural gifts and traits that make people who they are. And, as much as we believe talent can drive innovation and great work, I’ve been curious about which is greater: the level of talent people possess, or what they actually do?
After evaluating data from 1.7 million instances of award-winning work, conducting in-depth interviews with hundreds of ‘difference makers’, and analysing the pieces to see how they fit together, the O.C. Tanner Institute discovered some surprising results.
The vast majority of award-winning work we studied involved a cross-section of the workforce – caretakers, front-line retailers, administrative personnel, health care workers and service providers in various sectors. Our research revealed that the things people do (skills that can be learnt) were far better predictors of success than who people are (their character traits, abilities, and talents).
To start, we wanted to measure how standard variables used in management science could predict success. Age, gender, tenure and company size became the variables in our control group and these variables rarely predicted measurable areas of success at all. Such variables had zero impact on predicting whether one’s work would have lasting success and little impact on determining whether a person’s success would exceed expectations or create extraordinary quality.
Next, we tested many traits that are commonly believed to be predictors of success like a person’s sense of meaning, calling and security (stability). We also tested other popular predictors such as proactive personality, intrinsic interest and desire to help others. Recruiters have long sought out such personality traits because they are, in fact, correlated with success.
If we could pinpoint all the above traits in a person, we could increase chances of success (where results exceeded expectations) by an average of 16 per cent. That’s impressive.
But that’s exactly where the talent war gets interesting. Throughout the process of collecting and analysing data, and our one-on-one interviews with people who had created award-winning work,
we noticed five skills (activities people performed in the process of creating great work) that showed up with surprising consistency:
Naturally, we had a hunch that these skills would improve the probability of success –perhaps at least as much as talents and character traits. However, when put into practice together, the skills increase the chances of exceeding expectations by nearly 36 per cent – 20 points more than all of the personality traits we tested combined.
What does all this mean?
Although natural talents and personality traits significantly increase the odds of success, our research shows that great work is more probable when people use a simple set of learnable (and yes, trainable) skills. Basically, when it comes to innovating in the workplace, what people do is more important than who they are.
So what are the organisational implications of these findings? It means that we need to balance our efforts of finding the people with super traits, with ensuring that our people (who may or may not be the ‘A players’ and rock stars) are equipped to learn and practise a simple set of skills for success:
1. Ask the right question
How often do we pause before we do our work to ask if we can do something better? In our research, we found that 88 per cent of great work projects began with some version of the question: “What difference would people love?” Think about things you could do that customers, team members, leaders and partners would love. Ask yourself if you can make something easier, simpler, faster, safer, greener or smarter. Can you make it more affordable, convenient, enjoyable, more connected or more secure? In 1944, Edwin Land and his family were on holiday in New Mexico.
His three-year-old daughter, Jennifer, wanted to know why she couldn’t see the picture her father had just taken of her. She was not satisfied with a technical explanation about darkrooms and negatives and special paper, and that got Edwin’s gears turning.
He undertook the task of solving the puzzle she had set before him. Three years later, the camera, the film and the physical chemistry came together as Edwin and Polaroid introduced the concept of ‘instant’ to the photography world.
Edwin allowed Jennifer’s question to confront the status quo. That challenge, coupled with Edwin’s talents, led to a breakthrough that rippled from home life to work life in the form of ID cards, passport photos, ultrasound pictures, folk art and police investigations. Even the digital camera in your mobile phone, while not invented by Land,
carries his fingerprint of ‘instant’.
2. See for yourself
People who produce award-winning work don’t just work from their desks. They get out and look for possibilities. They observe processes, customer product interactions, trends and related disciplines to fill their minds with difference-making ideas.When you go and see for yourself, you witness what’s working and what isn’t. Watch how your work is being used. Look at what your work does. Look deeply at the process. Understand the workflow and how the work is conceived, produced and delivered. By looking with a fresh perspective, you will see new ways of doing things and new opportunities to make a difference. It will also fuel your passion for difference-making because those who go and see are 17 times more likely to have passion for their work.
3. Talk to your outer circle
Conversations with people we don’t usually talk to about our work can inspire ideas and concepts that we wouldn’t realise on our own. That’s why conversations with others are indispensable idea generating tools. They get us unstuck, cause new connections to fire in our brains and help us discover new possibilities. You can bet that Edwin Land didn’t regularly discuss his work with a three-year-old. But, the innovation of instant photography came from seriously considering a question she – who had no knowledge of photography – posed. Instead of just having conversations with people in your ‘inner circle’ (the people you share ideas with often) reach to your ‘outer circle’.
Pay attention to thoughts and ideas from people who may not be familiar with you or your work. Invite others to share their opinions. Explain your hunches and ask what they might improve. Gather all you can from each conversation. Seek out specialised know-how and explore naysaying points of view. Look for points of clarification. Remember to keep notes of all the ideas (both positive and negative) you hear, and consider how they can apply to your work. According to our research, 72 percent of award-winning projects
involve people talking to their outer circle.
4. Improve the mix
When you decide to make something better, your first impulse will be to add something new. Think of your project like a soup recipe – a little more of this and a little more of that. But, difference-makers also know when to remove unwanted, unnecessary or even distracting elements to make something better. Back in the fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Look for areas to add and remove until your work really makes a difference. Paperless bill pay, no-iron dress shirts and smart phones without keyboards are all great examples of removing.
Mentally play with ideas to discover which combination has the potential to create the biggest difference. Then do it. That’s what a middle-class Englishman named James Dyson did in the late 1970s when he was frustrated that his top-of-theline vacuum kept losing suction. In his mind, it was clear that he needed to eliminate the bag but how to make that possible was not clear. The idea stayed with James for a while. “It was in the back of my mind and I started looking for technology that would solve the problem,” James explained. One day he was at a lumberyard and noticed that all the woodworking machines had ductwork that went up onto the roof to a huge cyclone about 30 feet tall. “It works by spinning the dusty air around so that the particles fall to the bottom and the clean air goes out the top. I suddenly thought,” continued James, “would this work in a vacuum cleaner?”
James raced home and made a cardboard model and connected it to his vacuum cleaner. Within about 90 minutes he was pushing around the world’s first vacuum cleaner that doesn’t lose suction. To make a difference, he improved the mix by adding something in order to remove something. Statistically speaking, your work will be three times more effective when you add or remove an element or two.
5. Deliver the difference
Finally, people who do award-winning work are driven by positive outcomes. Their work isn’t complete until people love the result. That means the definition of job completion shifts from “my work is finished” to “I made a difference.” It takes learning, adaptation and discipline to see our work through until a
difference is made. James’ finished product of a bagless vacuum that never lost suction took more than 5,000 models and prototypes before it was ready to share and then vacuum manufacturers saw his idea as a threat to $500 million in annual sales of vacuum cleaner bags. When he decided to go it alone, he was making sure that he delivered the difference.
Too often, people think their work is done before they know if what they did was actually loved. Stay with your project and measure the impact from the change you made. Keep your eyes
open for any additional tweaks you can make that would make your work even more effective. In our research, we found that much of the impact came from the final adjustments towards the very end of the project after others had moved on to something else. According to the research, 90 per cent of award-winning work projects include employees who remain involved
Great work – creativity and innovation – begins when you take the time to ask if there were something different you could do that the world would love. Great workers look with their own eyes from a variety of perspectives to see new possibilities. They initiate new conversations with new people to generate ideas they wouldn’t be able to think of on their
own. They tinker and test and tweak things in hope that they will not only improve a product, or process or service but that they will also improve someone else’s life through the difference they make.
Practised together, the five great work skills are a better predictor of success than all the tested personality traits combined. Maybe the ‘talent war’ has been a tough battle simply because we’re looking at a subset of factors that drive success – wondering how to attract rock stars to our teams, without considering that they may be sitting in the cubicle next door.