Monday, August 24, 2009

In Search of Evidence

In June I wrote about Creativity: Luck or Preparation and Navigating the New Normal. The first post concluded that creative outcomes aren't the result of luck but rather the result of preparation, attitude, discipline and mindset. The second focused on research for business in turbulent times, concluding that the key factors are organizational discipline, core values and preparation. My interest in these topics specifically relates to the corporate practice of architecture and engineering, and the search for research and evidence from many other fields that impact that practice.

In the architectural engineering world, particularly in the area of health care, the topic of evidence-based design has expanded and evolved. An article in the current issue of Architect Magazine, Is EDAC the Next Leed? tracks the background from evidence-based medicine to the creation of a new professional accreditation and certification program. While there may be confusing definitions in this evolving design methodology, there is no doubt about its goal: to move design decisions from intuitive to informed. The Center for Health Design, which is dedicated to advancing such practices, defines evidence-based design as "the process of basing decisions about the built environment on credible research to achieve the best possible outcomes." Such credible research is not only changing the way we look at our professional practice, but at all the other claims and promises so often presented by product manufacturers.

Continuing the search for meaningful research brings me to an interesting and related article from the Boston Globe Ideas section, Luck Inc. by Drake Bennett, regarding business success books. The article challenges the content of business success books beginning with In Search of Excellence, and continues through a string of other best sellers:
"...the basic idea underlying the literature is the same: that the secrets of success can be divined by careful study of the institutional habits of the world's business all-stars... At their most ambitious, these books purport to elevate the study of excellence to a science, its nuggets culled from exhaustive research and refined by painstaking analysis."
The remainder of the article focuses on recent books, article and papers arguing that success books are not actually based on science. Bennett cites The Halo Effect, by Phil Rosenzweig, along with books by Robert Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford, which see problems with the reliability of the data upon which success literature is built. Rosenzweig states "These books try to impress you with the massive amounts of data that they gather, but much of the data are not valid." Fueled in part by the same quantitative urge that is behind evidence-based medical care, Bennett notes that many of the recent critiques argue "for a more truly evidence-based business-success literature." In perhaps the most radical critique, Bennett explores the findings of Michael Raynor and Mumtaz Ahmed of Deloitte Consulting, and University of Texas business school professor Andrew Henderson, that success books are not good at identifying the cause of success and cannot truly distinguish success from mere luck. They say the data is too inconsistent and suggest performance could be equally well explained by random chance. It would be nice if such challenges to the current business success books result in more rigorous future publications.

In spite of these claims, I have personally read many such business books and found the advice useful, even if not based on science. I am not a fan however, of the "luck" school of thought, and am confident that future, and deeper investigation of the topic of business success will turn up pertinent information related to organizational preparation and discipline. In all fields - medicine, business texts, product design and architecture - patients, readers, users and clients are looking for proof of promises. Perhaps the next best-selling business success book should be "In Search of Evidence".

Monday, August 17, 2009

True Grit

Seems that I'm reading, thinking and writing a lot about innovation, creativity, and team structures for successful outcomes. Maybe it's related to that Yogism, "the more you look, the more you see." At the core of my investigation is the search for evidence supporting those observations that lead to new structures and patterns of behavior which can effect successful change.

Many contemporary studies cite deliberate practice, design thinking, optimum frame of mind or mental preparation as determinants of success, but some current research points in a different, and old school direction. In a recent Boston Globe Ideas article, The Truth About Grit, Jonah Lehrer traces success from Newton's apple/gravity observations to current research on the linkage between a flash of insight and the effort to document a theory or produce a successful result. He notes that the celebration of the "aha moment" often overshadows the goals, discipline, effort and stick-to-itiveness that is actually required for success.

In recent years, psychologists have come up with a term to describe this mental trait: grit. Although the idea itself isn't new - "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration," Thomas Edison famously remarked - the researchers are quick to point out that grit isn't simply about the willingness to work hard. Instead, it's about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It's always much easier to give up, but people with grit can keep going.

Lehrer reports that two research psychologists, Angela Duckworth, who has pioneered the study of grit at University of Pennsylvania, and Carol Dweck at Stanford University, have been simultaneously investigating these personality traits, attempting to answer questions like exactly what is the 'grit' personality trait, how do you isolate and measure it, and can grit be learned?

One of the main obstacles for scientists trying to document the influence of personality traits on achievement was that the standard definition of traits - attributes such as conscientiousness and extroversion - was rather vague. Duckworth began wondering if more narrowly defined traits might prove to be more predictive. She began by focusing on aspects of conscientiousness that have to do with "long-term stamina," such as maintaining a consistent set of interests, and downplayed aspects of the trait related to short-term self-control, such as staying on a diet. In other words, a gritty person might occasionally eat too much chocolate cake, but they won't change careers every year. "Grit is very much about the big picture," Duckworth says. "It's about picking a specific goal off in the distant future and not swerving from it."

As described by both researchers, benefits from a better understanding of grit would be first to provide additional tools, beyond conventional intelligence and achievement testing, for use in a wide variety of applications to more accurately predict future success. Take the survey yourself at to see how you measure up. The second benefit would be to provide a body of knowledge for educators to teach children the virtues of continuous effort. Dweck refers to this teaching effort as creating a "growth mindset" while Duckworth envisions educators teaching these skills to develop "a generation of grittier children." Key to these educational approaches is an emphasis on perseverance, combined with reinforcement of the basic hard work and degree of effort that leads to accomplishment.

An excellent example of a school that Duckworth and Dweck might envision is the Bronx KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Academy. In Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, he tells the story of the school's co-founder, David Levin, the students at KIPP, and the unexpected characteristics of high student performance from this school in one of the poorer neighborhoods in New York City. Since its beginning in 1994, it has become one of the most desirable public schools in the City based on graduate achievement, and despite, or perhaps because of, its innovative schedule resulting in an extra two thirds time in the classroom over other district schools. KIPP students attend daily classes until 5 pm, spend four-hours in class every other Saturday, and don't complete their school year until three weeks into July. Gladwell quotes Levin on how students have adapted to the addition of the summer part of the program:

"The beginning is hard," he went on. "By the end of the day they're restless. Part of it is endurance, part of it is motivation. Part of it is incentives and rewards and fun stuff. Part of it is good old-fashioned discipline. You throw all of that into the stew. We talk a lot here about grit and self control. The kids know what those words mean."

No doubt, these are the forerunners of the generation of grittier, and more successful, children that Angela Duckworth envisioned.