Management by Counting on 110% Effort

There’s a massively delayed subway construction project in Espoo, Finland. Based on the public info, the project seems to be a mess of mismanagement. In a discussion regarding the project’s management style, a friend of mine quipped:

You know these managers telling their team will get this done by pulling a few all-nighters, or that she’ll be able to push the team to give a 110% effort? Anybody listening to these kind of arguments must immediately file the message to the La-la Land catagory.

Well said. It’s easy to agree that wishful thinking is not the right way forward. A manager can’t generate positive outcome by force of will. You can’t force facts to inexistence by ignoring them.

But how about the flipside? Taking a team’s velocity as granted is not right either. It is possible for a team to perform much better than they are used to, if led properly. There are numerous examples of sports teams achieving victories that everyone deemed impossible. Think about how Iceland made it to the quarter finals in Euro 2016. It wasn’t supposed to be possible, but inspiration, confidence, and attitude will work wonders.

I have a fond memory of a time I took a friend for a 15km run. For someone not used to running or biking, the distance sounded insurmountable. It took a while to get her even thinking about being able to run the distance. Even when we set out, she was making contingency plans. My job was to show that it is possible, assure that she can do it, and try to maintain speed and direction. Pretty trivial, eh? The thing is, when we finished, she had done something she didn’t think was possible. That was a powerful and inspiring moment.

If, as a leader, you settle for the usual, “the team’s 100% effort”, you won’t reach the full potential. There are famous anecdotes about Steve Jobs:

Those who did not know Jobs interpreted the Reality Distortion Field as a euphemism for bullying and lying. But those who worked with him admitted that the trait, infuriating as it might be, led them to perform extraordinary feats. Because Jobs felt that life’s ordinary rules didn’t apply to him, he could inspire his team to change the course of computer history with a small fraction of the resources that Xerox or IBM had. [HBR 2012-4]

I tend to think those anecdotes represent wishful thinking and belong to the La-la Land.

However, I believe it’s worthwhile to invest time and effort to pushing the limits. The famous scene from Invictus resonates with me. “But how to get them to be better than they think they can be?”

The million dollar question is “How to inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do?”

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