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How breakthroughs really happen

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY One of the most compelling story lines of the Olympics is the constant felling of records. As part of its commentary one night, NBC ran a little graphic showing how much faster Usain Bolt's winning 100-meter time was than previous Olympic victories. The most surprising? In 1896, the gold-winning time for men was 12.0 seconds (Thomas Burke, USA). That was rather slow -- by 1900 the winning time had come down to 11 seconds -- but even Jesse Owens' 1936 victory at Berlin took 10.3 seconds. That was quite a bit faster than any man achieved at the Olympics for a long time. In 1956, Bobby Morrow's winning time was 10.62 seconds. The 10-second barrier fell for the first time in 1968, but it was not commonly broken. When Carl Lewis won gold in 1984 in 9.99 seconds, the silver-winning time was 10.19 seconds. The bronze time was 10.22 seconds.

I had these times in mind as I watched the women's 400-meter relay last week. The U.S. team broke the women's world record by over half a second, clocking 40.82 seconds, or an average of about 10.2 seconds per leg. Obviously, there are huge differences between individual 100-meter times and each leg of a relay. In the relay you get a running start, whereas in the individual 100-meter dash you have to accelerate from zero. That said, in the midst of their relay legs, these four very, very fast women were running at speeds not far off what the best men were doing a few decades ago. You see this in lots of events. Paula Radcliffe's world record women's marathon time, set in 2003, would have been the men's record 60 years ago. Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen swam faster on the freestyle leg of her individual medley than Ryan Lochte did on his. That feat drew accusations of doping, though she later tested clean.

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What I take from these numbers is that training matters an incredible amount to performance. If, 60 years ago, women had access to modern sports speed and endurance training, and men did not, we would have thought women were faster than men. Even in the same era, breakthroughs can happen that blur notions of what it is possible to do. China's athletic regime has made a strategic choice to invest in women's sports largely because such sports are often underfunded and taken less seriously elsewhere. By starting training early and seriously, somewhat in the way boy basketball prodigies are treated in the U.S., you can get results that seem incredible to people that haven't made these same investments.

So what does all this mean for leadership? Few people take training very seriously in their business careers. Oh, if the company's paying to send us to a swanky retreat, we'll go. But training isn't something we think about daily. Partly this is because there's less of an obvious connection between skill and results. While it certainly helps to know how to make a tight, crisp presentation, you're seldom graded by a team of six judges, with other executives going right after you, and with commentators pointing out to an audience exactly what you're doing wrong. While there may be general best practices on how to launch, say, a new consumer product, you don't see teams practicing for six hours a day with pretend products in a virtual world. Some virtual case studies and games are about the closest we get.

Which means that, in some ways, we're still running 12-second 100-meter dashes in the world of work. Breaking the 10-second barrier will happen when people start getting individually coached from their first jobs on, with their long-term career results in mind. If young people start setting that up for themselves, practicing their professional skills daily with immediate feedback, we'll likely be amazed at the results years on. It's not a matter of innate ability -- it's about training smart.

How do you train for your job?

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