Exceptional is not an Extension of Good

“There is a fundamental discontinuity between good and great,” was one of the assertions Ray Ivany, President and Vice-Chancellor of Acadia University, made during a talk at a recent Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette event.  He was invited to speak on the topic of being the best and his talk was an insightful blend of the human dynamics and structural components necessary for exceptional performance.

“Exceptional is not an extension of good but it’s in a completely different place,” he said as he shared the following diagram with us.  Imagine that organizational effort is represented by a helium balloon that is attached to a stake in the ground by an elastic tether.  It manages to rise to the expectations of good performance without too much effort.  And, with some effort and exertion, it can stretch into the category of great.  However, it takes sustained effort to keep it there and as soon as the pressure is taken off, the elastic tether immediately yanks that balloon back into the category of good.

Great is not on the same continuum as Good

In order to allow it to stay in the zone of great, you actually need to sever the tether that holds it in place.   If you believe that great is discontinuous from good, the organizational and human strategies needed to move to and stay in great or exceptional performance are fundamentally different.

In looking at this diagram, it occurred to me that not only is good the enemy of great, it is probably the enemy of itself as well.  As soon as we think we are onto something good, we want to institutionalize it by creating standards and policies to maintain it.  This standardization means we often prevent the organization from conceptualizing the strategies that lead to great.  On the other side, the more we insist on standardization without the ability to continually adapt, the greater the likelihood we actually unintentionally shift our organization from good to mediocre by insisting on standards that often lose their meaning and relevance over time.

From this place of mediocrity, leaders still try to aim their people for excellence without any hope of getting there and the people are often frustrated in their efforts to shift organizational thinking and performance and no one really understands why.

We only shift the shape of our organizations from good to great, and stay there, when we build in the systems and the capacity to take different risks – one of those risks being failure.

Looking at this diagram and the capacities necessary to shift into a whole new category of performance reminded me of the Chaordic Path where one of the key questions is: “what is the minimum amount of elegant structure required to enable us to act in purposeful ways that lead to wise action and meaningful results?”  This is also the amount of structure that allows an organization to stay nimble and responsive to its environment, creating the conditions for chaos to emerge into its own sense of order and cultivating the adaptive and collaborative leadership that is also a strategy for exceptional performance.

Ray’s comments were entirely consistent with many of the steams of thought that show up in the Art of Hosting community and body of knowledge, providing a beautiful avenue of reflection for me.  The next entry will focus on some of the human dynamics elements that comprised the other main thread of this thought provoking talk.

Shifting the Shape of the Game

On the weekend, my eight year old son and I played mini-golf.  As I took the score card, he told me he didn’t want to keep score.  I found myself a bit attached to keeping score – what’s the point if we don’t?  But I agreed, grumbling a little in my mind.

It felt a bit strange starting, knowing we weren’t keeping score, feeling like my shots didn’t “count”.

On about the third hole, his first shot didn’t go very far.  In fact, you could probably say it failed.  He looked at me and asked if he could take it over.

Could he take it over? I realized his question was kind of pointless if we weren’t keeping score.  It didn’t matter if he “took it over” or not – it wouldn’t be reflected anywhere.  Of course, he could take another shot.

He asked the same question a couple more times and I told him it didn’t matter – of course he could.  And that was about when I realized it did matter – but in a different way than through the traditional lenses through which we were both seeing the game – me through the lens of keeping score in order for the game to have meaning and him through the lens of continuing to ask permission to re-do a shot to keep his score low.

We had shifted the shape of our game, but we both still playing by the old rules.  How often does this happen in the larger world?  How often do we continue to play by the old rules even when we know we want something different, even when the field opens up for something different to emerge.  It is only through awareness, reflection and mindfulness that we are able to fully embrace the shifting shape of the game and shape shift ourselves to flow well with the emergence that then becomes available.

In that moment of realization, the potential of the new “rules” opened up.  Not only could my son re-do a shot, but he could now “safely” develop his skill at the game without feeling the need to “cheat” to try to keep his score low.  So instead of sliding his ball into the hole, now he could “risk” hitting it to see what happened and learn how he could improve.

It was just a game of mini-golf — and it was so much more than a game of mini-golf.  Grateful to this youngster who is such a teacher in my life.

The Wisdom of Failure

This past weekend I was deeply inspired by youth leadership at Dalhousie University‘s student led Brains for Change event.  Thirty or so community resource people (me being one of them) were invited to participate in conversations with well over 100 students about big ideas that could become projects over the next few months.  Some amazing ideas to shift the shape of our city emerged – like get Halifax certified as a Fair Trade City.

I got to be in some cool conversations and one of them was about failure.  One of the risks we seem afraid of is anything that might remotely become failure.  And yet, failure is what we need in order to foster innovation, new ideas and new ways of doing things.  We put up so many barriers – risk management, liability, public response –  that we stifle creativity.

We also often respond to failure in very personal ways. We need to remember failure is an action, not an identity. It is not who we are or what we are; rather it is an event or situation, or it is related to a choice we have made – individually or collectively. Yet, most of us, at some point in our lives, have worn failure as an identity or have played the blame game around it.

In these situations, we have difficulty separating ourselves from the event or situation. It brings up all kinds of emotions: anger, guilt, regret, remorse, sadness, a sense of having let others – or ourselves – down. It can be overwhelming at times if we lose our sense of self in the failure.  We might even be  haunted by it, generating fear about participating in anything that might lead to another failure.

Personally or organizationally, in order to let it go, we need to be able to separate our sense of who we are, individually and collectively,  from the actions or choices that led to the failure.  We need to redefine success which then allows us to redefine failure. What if success was actually the learning process – what we learn from what happened – whether we see it as a success, partial success, not quite successful or dismal failure?

Let’s step back from the failure so we can get a different perspective of it.  What happened? What led to what happened? What decisions were made? Based on what information? Did we pay attention to all the information – the analytical, intellectual and the intuitive or gut reactions?  What could we do differently?  What’s the next iteration or prototype of what we were trying to do?

Failures provide valuable information – personally and organizationally. They help us know when we’re off course or when we’re not paying attention to something in our environment. Sometimes they lead us in a direction we hadn’t previously anticipated. In both business and personal circumstances “failure” has led to big breakthroughs. The classic business example is 3M’s post-it notes, now an institution in both home and office. Someone recognized the opportunity in a product “failure” (a glue that didn’t stick things together) and created a new revenue stream for 3M and a new way of drawing attention to things. What did we do before post-it notes?

Personal experiences of failure are often those points we look back on with gratitude because they shift the shape of our lives in ways we couldn’t have otherwise imagined.

Innovative businesses and communities cultivate an environment where making mistakes is not only acceptable but recognized as a valuable part of the innovation process. Mistakes only become failure when they are not learned from.

We wouldn’t be who we are today without our failure experiences. They help define us; sometimes they show us exactly what we’re made of. Bottom line is, we make the best decisions we can, with the knowledge, resources and awareness we have available to us at the time. It’s easy to see, with 20/20 hindsight, we should have done something different. The question now becomes what to do with the 20/20 hindsight to change patterns or increase your knowledge going forward so that “failure” becomes the wisdom from which you grow, innovation emerges and  success is created.

The best thing we could do for youth leaders is create environments where we grow our risk and failure muscles knowing that this is actually a route to success – sometimes beyond measure – one of the many topics we may end up exploring during the Art of Collaborative Leadership from March 16-18, 2011.