Leadership Chunking

07 Aug

If you surveyed 100 people and asked them what abilities separate top athletes from amateurs, most of them would probably say something about their innate ability. Comments like, “they just see the ball faster” or that sort of thing.

Interestingly, when it comes to reaction time, there is absolutely no difference between elite athletes and normal people. The best reaction time that anyone can have is about 200 milliseconds from the stimulus to the reaction. So, Albert Pujols and I can both react to a pitch at about the same rate. So what makes him so much better at baseball than me?

It turns out that it is not innate ability as much as it is a learned trait (though innate ability certainly helps). In numerous scientific studies, professional athletes and amateurs were shown photos of their sport. From volleyball to field hockey to chess boards, it turns out that the better athletes could see a picture for only a fraction of a second and still take in more info about it than amateurs who saw the picture for several seconds. In one case, a volleyball player was able to recall the exact game from which the picture was taken–again, having only seen it for a fraction of a second. Professional athletes don’t just see where the ball will be next, but they are able to see where the ball and the defenders and their teammates will be next.

So what is the secret? It turns out to be something scientists call “chunking.” Chunking is a skill–a learned skill–that means a chess master doesn’t have to memorize where each piece on the board is, because he can “chunk” pieces together in his brain and therefore better anticipate possible future moves. If the knight and bishop are in such and such a place in relation to the queen, then x possible moves can happen. Or, if Lebron James shoots with his hips in that position, then the rebound will be over to that portion of the court. Chunking means that Peyton Manning doesn’t need to scroll through all his possible receivers consciously in his mind, because he chunks the field. He can look at groups of defenders in motion and realize where his open man will be. As a result, he holds on to the ball for an average of only 2.5 seconds per play before completing a pass. (It would take me a lot longer–assuming I wasn’t sacked on every play).

This is a skill that comes from a lifetime of practice, studying game film, and the like. That is how great athletes are able to do more in the same 200 millisecond reaction time than you or I could. A learned behavior.

So what does this have to do with leadership? Certainly there are portions of leadership that are innate abilities (as we’ve discussed previously). But the learned ability over time to “chunk” key ideas in our leadership is something worth pursuing.

When it comes to managing people, discerning future problems, strategizing, and other similar leadership activites, I can see how “chunking” could be an invaluable skill. Especially for many whose work or ministry contains repeated elements, the better one gets at managing these chunks, the better leader one could be.

What application does “chunking” have in your leadership?

What potential dangers do you see in adopting this mindset? 

Note: The research cited here comes from The Sports Gene, by David Epstein.

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Posted by on August 7, 2013 in Uncategorized


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