Exemplars, observation, and accomplishment

Tom Gilbert sometimes talked about watching Martina Navratilova’s feet.   It was an analogy for observing an exemplary performer, rather than asking the exemplar about her work.

Martina: observant, but not the observerMartina might not be able to explain why she stands a certain way, or even how she stands, in a given situation.  She’s honed her expertise over thousands of situations; she’s responded to variations that average players aren’t even aware of.

That’s not to say she couldn’t be aware of how she moves, only that such awareness results from observation and reflection.

Timm Esque of Intel published an article in Performance and Instruction, the ISPI journal, in December 1995 — “Watching Tom Gilbert’s Feet.”   Gilbert was working on a project at Intel, and Esque wrote about differences between what Gilbert said and what he did.   The article’s online, though only for people with a Wiley InterScience account.   (ISPI members get access through their membership.)

Esque makes the point that you can’t always start with observation.   In tennis, he says, success is pretty clear, so you’re safe in observing champions.   In many (most?) work settings, successful performance is not so clear.

Always define the accomplishments that make up successful performance before trying to identify behaviors that make one performer more successful.

— Timm Esque

This tracks well with Gilbert’s dislike for the idea that there are born talents.  Martina may have had some physical and mental advantages, and especially at the highest level of performance, those will matter.  But when you start by doing what the exemplar does, you can get stuck in a web of behavior — the how-todo. As Joe Harless said, behaviors are verbs, accomplishments are nouns.   There’s a big difference between selling cars and cars sold.

Another, more challenging issue: distinguishing processes from jobs.   Individual jobs, especially inside an organizations, rarely result in a complete product.   They might have outcomes, but you need several different individual outcomes to get to the outcome of a process.   As Esque says, “Exemplary performance is usually the product of performances by a variety of performers around a single process.”

The Navratilova analogy might fall apart there–singles tennis involves a single performer (well, okay, two of them).  Still, her high level of skill is the result of working with others–opponents, doubles partners, coaches, trainers.  As for the rest of us, we tend to work with that variety of performers (coworkers, clients, vendors).

Photo of Martina Navratilova at the 2005 U.S. Open by t_a_i_s / Ta­s Melillo.