“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.
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.
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.