Perceptions of the Possible.

Posted by jlubans on May 22, 2013

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Not long ago I happened upon the televised running of the 2013 collegiate indoor men’s mile championship.
The announcer declared that each of the 10 finalists had previously run a sub-4 minute mile! Indeed, the first five finishers of the championship race came in under four minutes! The winning time was 3.54.
Seventy years ago many coaches, runners and writers believed a sub-4 minute mile was humanly not possible. In 1945 a Swede ran the mile in 4.01. His mark stood for nine years, with runners failing to crack the perceived psychological and physiological barriers.
Then on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister, with the help of two pace setters, ran the mile in 3.59.4. In a mere 7 weeks, the Australian John Landy reeled off a mile in 3.58. Over the next few years, numerous runners went below 4 minutes.
What happened to the former psychological and physical barrier? How did the perceived impossible move to the possible?

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Caption: Herb Elliott training barefoot on sand dunes led by the legendary coach, Percy Cerutty.
In 1958, my personal hero when I was a high school miler - the Australian Herb Eliott - ran the distance in 3.54.5 “shattering” the then-world record by 2.7 seconds!
In 1999, Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj ran a 3:43 mile, the current world record. Is 3.43 the new psychological and physical barrier? Perhaps.
Why, you may be yawning, is this guy going on about some obscure track and field event?
Well, because I’ve run into parallel perceptions about what was possible/not possible in the workplace. Leading from the Middle discusses at length the challenges faced by an organization in which I worked. This was a large research library and we suffered chronically from vast backlogs and plodding turnaround; instead of new books going to the open shelves the books went into storage. Previous efforts at eliminating backlogs and speeding up production had mostly failed. When extra staff were added, the “experts” implemented even more complicated quality controls that created traffic jams and aggravated backlogs. The experts’ mantra was that “high quality” – never defined - was our quintessential product. And, no, we could not lower quality to improve production!
The general mindset was that unless we got more people and more equipment, we would never achieve our version of a sub-four minute mile: no backlogs and one-day turn around. Within existing resources, these goals were psychologically and physically impossible. Like Bannister, we were in a world that said it could not be done.
Naively enough, I accepted the charge to eliminate bottlenecks and backlogs. I did believe we could achieve these goals but I knew we needed new perspectives and attitudes about our work. We would need to experiment, to make mistakes, and to expect and permit more innovation from our staff, both professional and support. One of my leadership initiatives was to look elsewhere, to see what our 20 or so peer institutions – those with whom we compared ourselves – might offer. I discovered that while most of us - as traditional institutions tend to be - were bogged down in similar ways, a few of the peers were indeed innovating, doing a few things differently, faster and better with fewer people and with less “tradition” than the rest of us. Of necessity, those innovating placed was far less emphasis on tacit standards that, in my opinion, added little value while slowing down our work.
While these innovations were not system-wide, they were useful in two ways. I was encouraged that our work could be done differently – we did not all have to be in lock-step - and that I could bring back new ideas and experiences to my teams to encourage them to try alternative ways. Someone else’s creating a different way (like Bannister) helped change our attitude, gave us permission to look toward what was possible. And, in the best tradition of one-upmanship, I was convinced: “if they can do it, we can do it better!”
So, fresh outside perspectives were good, but best of all, we had our own Roger Bannister. This was a support staff member who, once liberated, could not be held back in setting new production records. She was fearless, curious and playful. She looked at how she worked and how she could tweak what she did to save time and produce more. Her personal success was considerable; if 100 units per month were the so-called norm, she challenged herself to double it. If the “norm” were 200 units, she would come up with ways to produce 400. Shattering the divisive barrier between support staff and professional work, we allowed her to cross the line – to do work once saved only for advanced professionals. While largely accepted now, this was then an organizational taboo.
Her kind of performance is often derided as “rate busting”, but fortunately we were able to keep the naysayers at bay and she freely offered her time saving methods to several others who followed her lead. Her demonstrating that she could indeed work smarter, not harder, made a difference for anyone open to improving his or her workflow. Pretty soon backlogs began to disappear and we found ourselves out pacing our peer group. Of course, we had our critics inside and outside of the organization. Unlike sports where when someone sets a record they are usually praised, bureaucracies tend to find fault and look for ways to denigrate the success of the rate-buster. I think, in retrospect, we actually freed up a lot of workers at other institutions. We had run our own mile faster than ever before and, in so doing, we eliminated perceived barriers. Others could now see their way more clearly to higher levels.

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