The Longer you Work at Improving the Same Thing, the Fewer Improvements you Make
Gold Medal sprinters work endless hours to shave a millisecond off their time. At the beginning, they made giant strides.
The longer you work at improving the same thing, the fewer improvements you make.
Improvement is quick and obvious at the beginning.
The danger of making improvements is the illusion you can continue making the same improvements by doing more of the same.
Grinding away at the same thing wears everyone down and provides diminishing returns. Since large improvements happen at the beginning of a process, create beginnings.
Work to improve one aspect of your leadership. Make a few obvious improvements. Turn your attention to something else.
Improvement is a process, not a destination.
10 steps on the journey to improvement:
- Identify and maximize high impact activities. Make a list of everything you’re doing. Rank each item on the list by the impact it has on desired results. Use a scale of one to ten.
- Choose one high impact activity to improve this month or quarter. You might improve your one-on-ones or strengthen relationships on your teams. You might decide to address a pain point, seize an opportunity, or maximize someone’s strengths.
- Determine an outcome.
- Identify behaviors that might achieve desired results.
- What behaviors might hinder desired results? (What do you need to stop?)
- Choose a time-frame that provides a sense of urgency, a month or quarter.
- Evaluate at the end of the time-frame.
- What did you try?
- How did it work?
- Celebrate progress. Reject the need for perfection.
- Stabilize and systematize.
- Focus on improving something else. Return to improve the same area in six months.
- Identify and minimize low impact activities on your list. Yes, you still have to fill out reports.
Make something better, then make something else better.
How might improving things become a rut?
How might leaders maximize opportunities for improvement?
Thanks Dan – I work with clients in behavioural change as an executive coach – I like you’re idea of picking one maybe two ideas for change (like going to the golf range pick one or two clubs you really want to improve upon). More than that gets a bit hectic. Also the concept of high impact (or tipping point behaviours is awesome as we can really start to see and feel the benefit right away) … my belief from experience and vast research is that as we begin to change our actions (even a little bit at a time – say “actively” listening in the Monday meeting) consistently we begin to form habits … these habit eventually form new behaviours — when we start to exhibit consistent behaviour people gain a new perception of us. When this happens we begin to create a new destiny for ourselves which is ultimately the goal of behavioural shift — to change the outcome — the time this takes does depend on the behaviour and the person however again my experience and research would show that this takes 6-12 months of consistent effort with regular feedback from stakeholders on “how am I doing and what could I do better” … Thanks again for your Blog Dan.
Dan I often coach people on this subject of avoiding the need for perfection.
When I passed the CPA exam the average passing grade was the minimum 70%.
Most activities in Business can succeed with 75-80% completeness or correctness.
Often people try for 100% out of fear or lack of confidence but it is usually either not obtainable or worth the effort!
Dan, I find this post a bit confusing. Are you suggesting we not do things that work anymore, or is repeating these what you mean by systematize?
There is some excellent cognitive science to support this in Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel’s book “Make it Stick: The science of successful learning.” I really recommend the read as to why this works.
Brilliant post, Dan. Spot on with my experience. One caveat: it is important to carefully choose a finite number of objectives to make progress on in a given timeframe, say a year, otherwise you risk trying to improve on too much, and make very little progress toward anything. Continually beginning and trying new strategies to make improvement on a limited set of objectives, gives steady progress toward important goals.
I have also seen processes and procedures “improved upon” far beyond their useful life, in effect ignoring obsolescence and the need to scrap the old and find a “new way.”