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Why Performance Improvement is an Uphill Battle

By Paul Johnson

1,190 words. Abstract: Performance improvement can be easy when you avoid your uphill battles. Get past the three myths that are thwarting the success of you and your team.

Who doesn’t get frustrated once in awhile? Either we’re disappointed with our own failure to achieve a goal, or with the failure of someone else we were counting on to perform.

  • We work hard and achieve a deadline, but we know the quality of our work has fallen short.
  • We’re counting on someone to hit their sales target, but revenues will fall short… again.
  • We’ve shown someone over and over how to do something new, but they just don’t “get it.”

Many of us are challenged with the performance improvement of someone, whether that someone is someone else or ourselves. If you’re frustrated in your efforts to reach goals, perhaps you need a better plan for achieving results.

While many factors affect performance improvement, one subtle aspect is often overlooked. By recognizing and managing this aspect, you have an opportunity to avoid the frustration and wasted effort that otherwise occurs. This may be your chance to avoid repeating the same failure-inducing mistake over and over again.

Stop Mything Out

Three myths stand in the way of recognizing and applying a solution. The first myth is the common promotion of the idea that education and skill-building results in success. While those factors are important, we need to accept that learning a topic does not mean you’re assured of applying it successfully, especially in a competitive environment. Going to a training class will help you gain additional skills, but at some point performance improvement plateaus regardless of how much training is received. Yes, education and training support success, but there is more.

The second myth is that hard work is necessary for success. Instead, I contend that most people work too hard but don’t practice enough. If the work is hard, I suggest you may be wasting your efforts on the wrong work. On the other hand, when you find work that is fun and easy for you, continual practice will lead to higher and higher levels of performance improvement. Your practice must be focused on work that is right for you. Work easy and practice hard.

The third myth is that people assume that people who succeed in one area know how to succeed in them all. We see this all the time when people get promoted. Those that fail to achieve in their new roles are scrutinized for their failures. We wonder what’s wrong with them, when there may be nothing wrong with them at all. It’s silly to assume anyone can be good at everything we ask of them. I can tell you from first-hand experience that it IS hard to say “no” when presented with an “opportunity.”

Picture the Perfect Pachyderm

One key insight can help us resolve all these myths and help us understand where and how performance improvement is truly possible. I wish I could take credit for this idea, but it really comes from nature. I guess we could call it a big idea, because I learned it from studying elephants.

These days you rarely hear the words “war” and “elephant” in the same sentence. Yet War Elephants were an important combat tool in Asia and the Mediterranean centuries ago. Armies would enlist elephants to participate in the charge against the enemy to instill fear and breakup their lines. And fearful the enemy should be. Unlike horses, elephants have no reservations about trampling humans. Their thick skins made them relatively difficult to wound with common weapons of the time, and their strength allowed them to carry armor to make that possibility even more remote. Then, to literally top things off, soldiers would strap a mini-fort, called a howdah, to the top of the elephant. Here, a handful of archers could reside with a birds-eye view of their opponents.

Many of us have heard of the Carthaginian general Hannibal. He is noted for taking his army over the Alps to attack the Roman Empire from the north in a surprise attack. In addition to 40,000 troops, Hannibal brought several dozen War Elephants to Europe to traverse the Alps. Unfortunately, Hannibal wasn’t aware of a significant shortcoming of elephants.

Find the Fate-ful Flaw

We can’t really blame Hannibal for this knowledge shortfall, because he never had a chance to meet Professor Fritz Vollrath from Oxford University. Professor Vollrath’s research team did a study on African elephants, using global positioning system (GPS) devices to track elephants crossing the savannas. They discovered that elephants “don’t do hills.” Elephants routinely avoid any types of slopes and hills, as even minor hills make them really hungry. Elephants only eat vegetation, and they need lots of it. Climbing hills requires a significant boost in calorie consumption and that means finding lots more to eat. The researchers reported, “Climbing 100 meters [@300 ft] would burn [2,500 calories] which would have to be either replenished by an extra half hour of foraging or paid for by using up body reserves.”

Now imagine you’re Hannibal, trying to get dozens of elephants over mountains not hundreds, but thousands of feet high. The elephants see the slopes and their instincts tell them not to climb them, but their human handlers drive them forward. Then they get hungry because there’s not enough food growing on the mountain slopes. And a ticked-off elephant has no reservations about trampling people. THAT must have been a fun journey. Sadly, all but a handful of elephants died crossing the Alps.

Role with the Flow

The lesson that elephants (and other animals) can teach us is this: humans are versatile, but no one is good at everything. Performance improvement comes easiest when a human who is “wired” to succeed in a specific endeavor is placed in that role.

  • We know Michael Jordan as a phenomenal performer in basketball, yet he was much less impressive in a baseball uniform no matter how much hard work and practice he was willing to perform.
  • We saw Susan Boyle become an “overnight success” at the age of 47 on the “Britain’s Got Talent” contest. She owned the stage once given the opportunity to demonstrate the gifts and abilities she has owned all her life.
  • I bet we can all name our own examples of people who have taken advantage of every education and training opportunity presented to them, yet are still identified with mediocre performance and lackluster results.

Hopefully that’s not you. Or maybe it is.

Don’t Do Hills

Your uphill battle may not be going literally uphill as it is for elephants. Yet we each face our own challenges. Some of these challenges we were never designed to overcome. When a task seems like an uphill battle to you, consider that maybe, just maybe, you were never intended to do it. Instead, find those tasks which come easy to you, where learning is easy and practice is fun. Aim for performance improvement in those areas where you are “wired” to do well.

We each have our own unique set of gifts, talents and abilities. It may be hard to find them in yourself and in other people but, when you do, results will come fast and success will be easy.

© 2009 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

About the author
Paul Johnson is the keynote speaker who describes his approach to transformational leadership at http://TroubleBreaker.com. He enables companies to achieve breakthrough growth and team performance improvement at http://ShortcutsToResults.com.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

A Question for your Comments: When did you say “Yes” to an “opportunity” when later you discovered you should have said “No, thanks”?

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Comments (0) Nov 01 2009

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Who is Cheating You Now?

By Paul Johnson

1,500 words. Abstract: Perhaps you’re frustrated because your hard work to create a better life seems thwarted at every turn. Use this approach to win against the people and problems blocking the paths to the results you desire.

Despite all our efforts at work, sometimes it seems we make little economic progress. Over the years, many metaphors have been used to describe our despair. “I am…

  • running in place.”
  • a hamster on a wheel.”
  • stuck on a treadmill.”

My favorite is, “I feel like a dog on linoleum.” When we’re not getting ahead, who is cheating us out of the rewards we deserve for our efforts? Many are potentially to blame:

  • Bosses that show favoritism at work.
  • Unfair labor practices.
  • Oppressive decisions inflicted as a result of greed, jealousy or ego.

While it may be true that these events cheat you out of rewards and opportunities you deserve, these events are not the ones you should worry about or even attempt to fix.

The Waste of Life
When we’re feeling stuck and not making the progress we want, frustration is often the symptom. We’re frustrated with our failure to achieve, our failure to earn, and our failure to attain a position of comfort and stability. By escaping the tyranny that is holding us back, our liberation will give us the ability to enjoy steady progress and enjoy more of the fruits of our labors.

My inspiration for this article came from Chris Anderson and his new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price (Chris is also author of the best seller, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, published in 2006). In Free, Chris Anderson explores the concept of waste. He points out that in the animal kingdom, mammals (including humans) have an unusual attitude toward waste. In short, we have an unhealthy aversion to it.

It’s actually bred into us because of our procreation patterns. He points out that the Bluefin tuna releases up to 10 million fertilized eggs in a single spawning season. Of those, maybe 10 will make it to adulthood. That means one in a million survives, and the rest are wasted. While the numbers are smaller, the story is pretty much the same for insects, reptiles, amphibians and birds. Only mammals attempt to preserve every life.

I was watching the Discovery Channel and learned that hundreds of sea turtles hatch from a single nest in the sand and then scamper down the beach into the ocean. The camera showed how one of them didn’t make it; a crab caught it and was going to eat it for dinner. Admit it; don’t you feel terrible about that? While we can rationalize that that’s the way nature is supposed to work, we still don’t like it. Our nature tells us not to waste anything, even the life of a single baby sea turtle.

Waste Not, Want More
This means that, deep down, we believe we live in a world of scarcity. Resources are limited. The number of jobs is finite. Energy is expensive. And for every problem, there is only one right solution.

That last statement is the myth that is cheating you out of the progress you desire. In our search for the perfect answer to our problem, we continually seek more information, spend more time, and consume more resources. Why? Because we want to find the perfect risk-free approach. Why does risk repulse us? Because we are genetically programmed to avoid waste.

Perhaps your progress has been limited because you’ve been trying to engineer the perfect risk-free solution to each of your problems. Perhaps you should start considering that there may be a million answers to your problem. Pick one. Try it. Repeat as necessary.

This simple approach allowed Thomas Edison to bring us the light bulb. He “wasted” 999 versions so he could produce the one that worked. None of us care about those 999, yet they were critical to the process that eventually produced success. Understand that none of your failed efforts are ever really wasted as long as you don’t neglect one little thing.

While this may seem like a simple concept to understand, overcoming millions of years of evolution is no easy task for us. Let’s break this down into three distinct components that can make this concept easier for you to internalize.

I. Choose to Waste
See? You’re already feeling guilty. Here we are, living in an age when we’re trying to preserve our planet and the daily news is filled with reports of our dwindling oil reserves, food shortages and unemployment statistics. Yet there are many things you could choose to waste with little consequence to you or anyone else.

  • Long-distance minutes.
  • Space on your hard drive.
  • The fuzzy leftovers in the back of your fridge.
  • The clothes in your closet you’re really never going to wear again.

Sometimes I waste air-conditioning. On days that are warm, but not too warm, I turn on the air conditioning in my car and roll down the windows. I want the fresh air, the breeze and the connection to the outside, but it’s a little too warm to rely on just a breeze to keep me comfortable. I decided that once the air conditioning is running, having the windows up or down has negligible impact on my fuel consumption but major impact on my comfort.

Choosing to waste like this makes it easier when it comes time to face a problem and you have to make a choice. More often than not, the choices available are not mutually exclusive. Just pick one and get going. As long as you don’t neglect to learn something from each attempt — like Edison did — none are really wasted.

II. Take a Second Chance
After you’ve made a choice and tried it, you’ll often find that it doesn’t work. Be kind to yourself and give yourself a second chance (and a third and fourth as well). I routinely try new things. When they work, I keep doing them. If they don’t work, I try something else. Thomas J. Watson, former president of IBM had this to say: “The way to succeed is to double your error rate.” He understood the value of learning from mistakes, and as a result built IBM into a huge business.

I’ve spent the better part of my career in sales, and have frequently needed to take a second chance. In one case, a customer got a little aggressive deep in the negotiation phase. When I wouldn’t acquiesce to his demands, he threw me out of his office. I never saw or spoke to him again. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get the order. I took a second chance and figured out a different way to “close the deal” and earn the commission.

III. Let Possessions Flow
At an early age, we all learn the word, “Mine!” We tend to get attached to and protective of our possessions like our houses, cars, and the money in our bank account. Instead of being a collector of possessions, I’m suggesting you accept that they will ebb and flow during your life like the tides of the oceans. Sometimes you’ll have to give something up for the opportunity to make progress.

In baseball, base runners know that they have to take their foot off first base to have any hope of attaining second base. They are vulnerable to being called out whenever they are not safely standing on a base (the only totally risk-free way of attaining second base is by hitting an out-of-the-park home run). Letting go is the key to achieving more.

Unfortunately, letting go is another form of waste to us mammals. This innate behavior was supposedly used successfully to hunt monkeys. A hole was cut in a coconut just large enough for a monkey’s open hand to enter. The coconut would be tethered to a nearby tree, and then some nuts would be placed inside. A passing monkey would discover the nuts, reach in and grab them, but couldn’t remove their hand because their closed fist was too large to fit through the opening. There they remained, unwilling to let go of the nuts even as the hunters returned to kill them.

Let Go and Get Going
Sometimes we need to be willing to release what’s already in our grasp so we can move on to something better. When you’re feeling stuck and yet afraid to let go of the familiar, consider that the worst case scenario is seldom the most probable scenario. The things we most fear rarely materialize. You CAN work around the obstacles that are making it difficult for you to achieve the progress and gain the rewards you desire and deserve. Always begin by believing that there is more than one “right” answer to the problem you’d like to solve. Pick one and get going. Don’t cheat yourself out of the better life you’re searching for.

© 2009 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

About The Author:
Paul Johnson is the keynote speaker who gives teams the courage, motivation, and insight to overcome obstacles and create breakthrough growth opportunities at http://TroubleBreaker.com. Learn about business growth topics at http://Paul-Johnson.com.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

A Question for your Comments: When has taking a second chance paid off for you?

Posted: under Achieving Results (Production).
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Comments (0) Sep 01 2009