Part 3: 10xPrinciples on Nurturing the Nature: An Employer’s Guide to Evincing 10x Performance

The first post of this three part series, Defining the Principles of 10x, establishes that 10x performers are awesome problem solvers. Those with 10x potential already possess significant natural gifts and an employer can help these employees to realize their potentials – by nurturing their natures. The second post in this series explores how to find latent 10x potential in employees. This final post in the trilogy addresses the question, “How should an employer nurture this high performance in employees with 10x potential?”

It’s illustrative to look outside the tech field for examples from another profession. The myriad baseball statistics captured and finessed by a team’s data science group provide quantitative measurement of 10x performance. Those who break into the ranks of professional baseball swim in a rarefied pond, with a small minority rising to 10x status. In their excellent 2019 book, The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are using Data To Build Better Players , Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik¬†demonstrate that player development during the off-season has transformed many middling players into superstars. In baseball, player development is achieved with technology that captures an individual player’s mechanics and aided by learned coaches who interpret results, suggest changes, and implement efficient, directed training. Any player in major league baseball is already starting with superior raw material. However, improvement at these elite levels is what can differentiate a middling player from a star.¬†

Beware of making an easy analogy between baseball players and employees of a tech company. Moreover, a baseball player does not become a top performer from skill improvement alone. Success in baseball also comes to those with acute situational awareness on the field and the nimbleness to quickly modify behavior. That is, not only must a baseball player master his craft, but he must also have a unique ability to quickly triumph over the challenges that present themselves. Although we laud rookies who perform superbly, they are compared to other rookies or to seasoned players at the starts of their careers. Although a rookie may exceed the raw power of a seasoned player, the rookie lacks the experience of the wily veteran – and in baseball, like in life, experience matters. A baseball player must master his craft and then some to achieve 10x performance.

Imagine a cabinet-maker who cares about nothing but his craft. Who will achieve more – the master-craftsperson who produces one perfect cabinet a year or the pragmatic cabinet maker who builds cabinets of sufficiently high quality to satisfy his customers, but builds lots of them? Similarly, the employee as craftsperson is a dangerous conceit if it’s not accompanied by an urge to produce.

What does this all mean for a manager whose primary job is to help her direct reports achieve their potentials? Like any thorny problem, the best way to approach this one is to break it down into smaller, achievable components. These are the elements that constitute high performance:

  1. Identifying Pain – Finding the problem requires a plethora of domain education that includes an understanding of customers/roles, the business, and the value that customers derive from the company’s products. All this background information is table stakes for pain-finding and is akin to the presentations during new employee onboarding bootcamps. Getting to the root of customer pain, however, requires a combination of empathy, insight, and understanding of human psychology, all of which fall far outside onboarding slide decks.
  2. Synthesizing information to propose a solution – When a product team gathers information from customers, it’s often conflicting, inconsistent, and generally difficult to wade through. Connecting the dots demands experience, clear-thinking, and judiciousness.
  3. Selling the idea – Individual contributions are always important, but teams deliver solutions. 10x performers persuasively pitch ideas influencing others not by exerting power, but by communicating with logic and humanity.
  4. Implementing the solution – Regardless of the employee’s role in the implementation, having an adequate arsenal of technical tools to draw upon is essential in fitting an appropriate implementation to the solution.

The heavy lifting of 10x performance is problem detection and problem solving. The managerial challenge is, how does one teach problem detection and problem solving? In situations like this it’s advisable to turn to that lovable gadfly, Malcolm Gladwell, who insists in Outliers (2008) that expertise requires practice, and lots of it – 10,000 hours. Although one may quibble with the 10,000 hours figure, it’s indisputable that developing world-class talent requires tons of natural ability and lots of hard work.

There are some who define problem solving as a “meta-skill” that is general and reusable and can be applied broadly to a wide set of problems. Does this imply that devoting a team’s Friday afternoon to playing ‘Call of Duty’ will advance problem solving skills that can be applied to understanding customers’ pain points? Doubtful. Should those with latent 10x potential take up Sudoku and Crossword puzzles as a means to solve customer problems? Seems unlikely. Gladwell suggests in Outliers, that the Beatles became experts from their years of playing the seedy, beer-soaked clubs of Hamburg; he did not claim that they developed expertise by studying music theory in a music conservatory. For those in a tech company, the way to become proficient in solving customers’ problems is by solving customers’ problems … and doing it a lot.

Fortunately, there are vast opportunities for customer problem solving in a tech company. One of the misconceptions about the Agile development process is that a few hours of discussion between Development and Product Management yields an actionable and estimable tranche of work for the next sprint. In reality, it takes a multi-disciplinary team to “shape” potential projects before they are embarked upon by software writers. The process of shaping involves precisely the elements listed above as components required for high performance. Shaping teams must understand the customers’ pain points, craft a scoped solution, assess risk, determine technical feasibility, and sell the solution – precisely the sort of problem solving that strengthens 10x skills.

Smart managers recognize the need to have Shaping teams. Even smarter managers find places on Shaping teams for their reports who are either 10x performers already or possess 10x potential. Not only does the company benefit by having strong employees on Shaping teams, the constant flexing of problem solving muscles provides the type of practice that leads to expertise.

This final paragraph in the trilogy summarizes all three. It’s counterintuitive that those who are the most productive are seldom the finest craftsmen. Rather, it’s the employees with a blend of natural ability, curiosity, clear thinking, and a drive to execute who will deliberately and carefully make “great is the enemy of good” decisions to deliver solutions that address customers’ points of pain. Those with 10x potential are identifiable during the hiring process and should be tasked with work that leads them to expertise in problem solving. With intentional corporate care and feeding, employees with the raw ingredients necessary for 10x performance will flourish.