Each time I walk into an organisation, I can immediately measure the “vibe”, from positive and energetic all the way across the spectrum to positively dead.  Generally, the positive organisations are the ones with strong leaders coaching and supporting their teams to achieve ambitious targets.  They don’t look stressed, rather they look focused, just like an up and coming sports team chasing down the league leaders.

On the other hand, I see organisations that just appear to be sleepy and accepting of mediocrity.  They’ll sit mid table, above the relegation zone.  Their company vision statement will hang in the foyer talking of being the “premier” this or that with little evidence to back it up. Annual improvement targets seem to be set in a rut of 2% here and there rather than being based upon real business opportunity.

I was thinking about this as I sat on yet another domestic flight one day.  No matter how hard we try, human nature will influence our businesses.  We try and push boundaries, but at some point, whether we like it or not, an acceptance of what is humanly possible will creep into our subconscious.

Without an obvious solution, I reached for my phone to switch my head off for a while.  Several months ago, I’d taken to playing Solitaire to alleviate the boredom of flying.  It was fun at first.  Once I’d mastered how to win most games, I then began to focus on my time and score.  It was great, sometimes frustrating, but fun, until that is my times and scores started to plateau. I’d achieved what I thought was a very good time – 1 minute 52 seconds.  Try as I may, I just couldn’t match it again – I’d reached my limit.  Things got tired, the novelty started to wear off and so did my average performance.  There was no fun in it anymore, winning was expected yet there was little to celebrate.

I’d lost my mojo with the game, so how could I get it back?  I decided to set up a competition to bring some challenge into the mix.  I put it out to the office team – best time and score at the end of 4 weeks wins $100 – although I was pretty confident my 1minute 52 seconds was safe.  Imagine my horror when not even 30 minutes after knock off, my administrator txt me a 1 minute 36 seconds on her 1st attempt.  At first I refused to accept it and was devastated that months of hard work could be bettered in such a short time frame.  It must have been a fluke I thought to myself, a 1 in a thousand hand that was dealt, surely?  It couldn’t be sustained I told myself.  Until the second txt came an hour later from the same person – “ooh, I’ve just taken another 8 seconds off my time” it read.

Reluctantly, I told my wife (who I’d been bragging to about my solitaire skills) that my time had been beaten.  “what the hell have you been messing around at for months then?” she laughed.  I instantly regretted telling her – my pride was hurt.

So, what happens in a business scenario when Middle Managers are told by outside experts that their performance and achievements can be smashed out of the park?  Scepticism?  Disbelief?  Fear?  Who’s going to tell Senior Management when the response might be “what the hell have you been messing around at for years?”.  How do Senior Managers, CEO’s and even board Directors know what the true potential of their organisation is?  Have they really pushed the boundaries?  Or are they just in a mindset of knowing their industry and the accepted benchmarks? Like a game that’s no longer any fun, businesses can suffer the same,  a business can also lose its mojo.

Back to Solitaire one last time.  I too had become content that I’d reached my potential.  If I was asked by someone to improve upon that score, I would have been cautious and committed to maybe a couple of percent improvement.   Until that is, that something mandated a much bigger improvement.  A sceptic might call me emotionally immature, but I call it competitiveness.  Whatever it takes, I must win.  I realised quickly that to achieve my goal I couldn’t keep playing the game the same way – that could take months or more. I needed to think differently, think strategically and develop a new technique.  Within 2 weeks I had a 59 second score in the bag – a 47% reduction and I’m regularly getting just above a minute.  What’s more, I even enjoyed the challenge.

The lesson for me was to remember that demand breeds innovation.  Incredible things can happen once there is a clear demand.

My advice to CEO’s and Directors – don’t ask for mediocrity, demand beyond best in your industry.  The results might just surprise you.