Don’t Lose the Plot

“Life is a journey, not a destination.”  ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I can’t imagine many people will not have heard (or used) this quote – or a variant of it – at some time in their lives.  It does seem fairly self-evident I guess.  People who set out on any journey, whether they get to where they imagined they would or not, do at least get the satisfaction of knowing that they tried. They have the opportunity of enjoying the thrill of the ride. They gain experience and learning from the venture. The challenge of the journey will often, in itself, be a major part of the reason for embarking on it.  Isn’t that obvious?
"It's A Long And Winding Road..."

Well, Intuitive though this may sound, it does not always appear that way when observing people’s behaviour. How many people are genuinely enjoying their journeys?I watched a documentary on TV this week, in which Ian Rankin (the famous and brilliant crime writer – check out his Rebus novels if you don’t know about him) keeps a video-diary of his thoughts, activity and progress while writing his latest novel.  He has a sketchy idea for the plot and how to start it off, and a vague notion of how the book should end, but has no idea how he will fill the 300 or so pages in between. For Rankin this was very much a process of discovery. It was as though he were chopping and beating a path Continue reading


Breaking Barriers

As the London Olympic Games draw towards their close, it has been exciting to watch records tumble and barriers being broken. Of course, not all barriers are measured by distance or by the clock. Some of the most fascinating are psychological barriers.

Andy Murray appears to have broken a personal barrier in winning his Tennis singles gold medal. Regular readers will have read Learning from Wimbledon a few short weeks ago which described the progress Murray was making with his Inner Game. At the Olympics he buried the anguish he experienced a month ago, by defeating two of his fiercest opponents in quick succession, something he has found tough to do previously. He played unbelievably well, out-hitting, out-moving and out-thinking both Djokovic and Federer. A huge breakthrough, which may well see Murray move on to achieve much more success in future championships. .

Michael Phelps broke the barrier of all-time most decorated olympian – 22 medals – 18 of which are gold. This is a phenomenal achievement, even in a sport that provides more opportunity than most to multi-event. Phelps has set the bar at a new height for someone else to emulate in years to come.

Oscar Pistorius broke a barrier of a very different kind, becoming the first double amputee to ever take his place in an Olympics starting line up. He qualified from his heat to reach the semi-final of the 400m. A remarkable story which has cleared the way for future paralympians to stake their claim to be able to qualify for full olympic participation. New barriers will no doubt have to be overcome, but Pistorius has shown it is possible.

Some barriers are broken with increasing regularity, most notably in the swimming pool and in the velodrome, the latter no doubt assisted by advances in cycle technology. Others stand defiantly unobtainable, such as the long jump record which has stood for over 20 years. What fascinates me most of all is the psychological nature of breaking barriers.

Perhaps the best known example of this in the sporting arena is that of the mythical 4 min mile ‘barrier’. Until 1954, many actually believed that it was impossible, and perhaps even dangerous (or fatal) for anyone to run a mile faster than 4 mins. Roger Bannister became the first to make the breakthrough, and opened the floodgates for many others to do the same very soon afterwards. Soon the record was being broken over and over again. Those people who were soon running sub-4 minutes on a regular basis, were clearly physically capable of doing so, in the same way that Bannister did. The barrier they broke was inside their head, not on the track.

Running the 100m had a similar ‘magical’ barrier for quite some time. Once 10 sec was broken by Jim Hines in 1968, many others soon followed. The 100m final at this week’s Olympics was won by the extraordinary Usain Bolt. Had Asafa Powell not pulled up with an unfortunate injury, there is no doubt that every runner in the race would have gone under the 10sec barrier.

No-one has yet gone under 2 hours for the marathon, but it is getting closer with the current world record for men standing at 2hr 03min. It will be fascinating to observe how long it takes for the first person to run 1hr 59min 59sec, and how long afterwards we have to wait to see that time further reduced.

What is going on with these symbolic barriers, and what learning can it provide for other areas of life? In business, when people say it’s impossible, do they simply mean it’s not been done yet? Does it mean that Continue reading

Stretch Goals dull our thinking

I was prompted to write this post after reading Daniel Markovitz’s recent article in HBR in which he makes a really good case for challenging the value of Stretch Goals.  To summarize he makes 3 key statements:

  • Stretch goals can be terribly demotivating.
  • Stretch goals have a dangerous tendency to foster unethical behavior.
  • Stretch goals can also — tragically — lead to excessive risk taking.

The way in which goals, targets and objectives are applied in many of our companies and organisations is now open to question and review. The principles and methods by which they are applied has changed little from the industrial days of their birth.

Within a factory-based model of production, when tasks were well-defined and output easily measured, targets, and especially stretch targets, were useful ways to drive up productivity.  After all, if you wanted to increase widget production by 10%, you worked  people harder, increased the speed of the conveyor, offered bonus targets (or overtime payment), and measured the success of your intervention immediately and directly.

However, most problems and challenges we face today are not of this order. Companies, organisations and governments are looking for creative, innovative solutions to intangible and intellectual problems. We don’t even know the right question in many cases yet, let alone reward people for achieving stretch goals that produce answers that may not even be correct or appropriate. Despite this, we appear reluctant to break away from the traditional factory model of reward and motivation.

The evidence, however, is clear.  Stretch goals and offering people bigger rewards to solve intellectual problems actually has the effect of lowering performance. It is in fact a disincentive.  They work in the case of clear, well-defined and narrowly focused tasks, but with complex, intellectual problems they actually dull thinking and cause people to have too narrow a focus.

This is addressed excellently by Dan Pink in a TED talk on “the surprising science of motivation”. If you haven’t watched this, I thoroughly recommend it to you.

The entire concept is flawed.  The incentives system is allegedly “designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity, and it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity.” (Dan Pink)

But, let’s be clear. I am not saying that Continue reading