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What top performers do, and how to do it

In some recent posts, I’ve explored the notion of increasing talent density in business as a means to stay ahead of the downside of growth — complexity and process encroachment (see What do Amazon and Netflix have in common? and Countering the traps of complexity and growth by creativity and context: the Netflix model). One of the central themes of those discussions is the notion of basing the organization around finding and retaining top performers.

Two questions have been directed my way in discussions about this approach: what do top performers do, and what happens to the less-than-top performers? (It turns out to be important to discuss these in that order.)

Robert Kelly of Carnegie Mellon did a study at Bell Labs in 1985 that sheds light on a key characteristic of top performers. Bell Labs was a top research lab — responsible for critical advances like Unix, C and C++, transitors, the wave nature of matter, and myriad other breakthroughs. However, even though the Labs hired the brightest minds, many did not become stars, and in fact, only a few did.

The network of contacts that a top performer has does not operate like a team on a playing field, which is a sort of a collective. Instead the network of contacts serves as a connective, where the individuals may be totally unaware of the actions or even existence of many of the others.Kelly found that, despite the folklore surrounding higher IQ, or better problem-solving skills, something more fundamental was involved in the performance of stars: they proactively networked in advance of specific needs. And then, later on, when they were engaged in some critical task they could — and did — reach out to other experts with salient skills and knowledge, and where a social connection had been created making it more likely that the contact would in fact make the time and effort to help.

I have often said that in a connected world, the most important decision is who to follow. Perhaps taking that a step farther in light of Kelly’s research is justified. Since we live and work in a connected world, the most important first step is to decide who to follow, and how to gain their respect so that they will follow you back. And maybe someday, cover your back.

This ‘preparatory exploration’ — as MIT’s Alex Pentland calls it — sets the top performers apart from the less stellar, whose networks are less diverse and smaller. In essence, the top performers create a network in which the rate of social learning is simply higher than others, and more likely to involve novel information. This is quite similar to the notion of social capital as developed by Ronald Burt in Structural Holes and Good Ideas:

“Social capital exists where people have an advantage because of their location in a social structure.”

Another way of looking at this differential of performance is that top performers are actually cheating, because they are leveraging their network more than the less connected, who rely more on their own abilities.

This, then, solves the mystery of how top performers do what they do. But what are we to do about all the other people? The answer is obvious: the techniques used by top performers are not a secret, and can be learned. And just as importantly, mentors and managers can intercede to create more diverse and richer social networks by making ‘preparatory exploration’ a part of organizational culture, and a part of every person’s toolkit. Those that are not today’s top performers can get better, and an organization as a whole can improve together.

Note also that this is not ‘teamwork’, which is another term that is bandied around far too much. The network of contacts that a top performer has does not operate like a team on a playing field, which is a sort of a collective. Instead the network of contacts serves as a connective, where the individuals may be totally unaware of the actions or even existence of many of the others. More on this in a later post.

The challenges are significant, because for talent density to grow faster than the company — or its challenges — increasing diversity has to become foundational. Also note that the answer isn’t a sweeping dictate that everyone should be connected to everyone: that leads to groupthink, not high performance. It’s actually essential that personal networks not grow too large, or the laws of diminishing returns start to play. But it is important to see that there is an upward path for the middling players, even in a world where the best connected have a real — and growing — advantage.

There is a way to base a company around unrelenting high performance that avoids a zero sum outcome in which all but the best performers are routinely fired. The key is to increase the rate of social learning, which anthropologists will tell us is largely based on observing and patterning ourselves on what experts do.