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Organizational Change
Sustainable People, Part I:
The Excellence Trap

The triple bottom line that inspires us is about planet, people and profits. Most of the time, we find ourselves talking about planet and profit, and all their complexities. When we talk about people it is usually about either 1. making sure they have a sustainable planet to enjoy, or 2. working to awaken a concern for planetary sustainability.

But what about sustainable people? What about people who are themselves sustainable? What about people who can flourish when challenged, keep delivering over time, bring their best, stay inspired, live and work from integrity, and not burn out? And what about building and sustaining organizations populated by those kind of people?

In addition to working in brand and design strategy, sustainability and the social sector, I also have strong experience in organizational development, working with teams, leaders, and frontline strategists. Several years ago, I noticed that business didn’t possess the answer to fostering high-performing, sustainable people. But populations outside of business — from improv musicians and comedians, athletes to martial artists, rappers and other spontaneous poets, to broadway performers and sages — do and have always known. Having immersed myself for decades in a few of these personally, both experientially and academically, I committed to bringing everything I know to create the first purpose-built path to sustainable performance for business, people and sustainable people. This article series will summarize what we found and what we propose.

In Part I, we’ll define, diagnose and describe the "excellence trap."

In Part II, we’ll outline the high hidden costs of the excellence and introduce the mastery solution.

And in Part III, we’ll get pragmatic and present the how-to, and discuss the benefits. And they might surprise you.

So strap in, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride! But I promise there’s a nice soft landing. Are you ready to get sustainable?

Excellence Mania

Ever since the highly influential book, In Search of Excellence, by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, was published nearly thirty years ago, leaders have been, well, in search of excellence. They've sought to drive excellent performance into their organizations through subsequent business and organizational movements and fads such TQM, Six Sigma, reengineering, moving from good to great, applying emotional intelligence, and more. And in our day-to-day conversations, excellent is highly valued, as it should be.

However, as we’ll see, excellence itself should be considered a trap that actually undermines the very performance it seeks to accomplish. It even has the potential to leave us fallen at the 15-yard line with a season-ending injury, a shell of our former selves, never tasting ultimate victory.

The good news is that we’ve diagnosed this excellence trap and its accompanying malaise closely, analyzing its drivers and costs, and created a way forward.

The Excellence Trap

The problem with excellence is that it’s unsustainable, and this limitation lies in its very core. More than that, it’s self-undermining. As we’ll see, excellence is something we go through, not a resting place. In the end, settling for excellence actually prevents us from performing at the highest levels and wondering what went wrong. It makes us good, but holds us back from great.

Here’s how: On the one hand, in order to be good, very good or excellent at something, we have to bring five things to the task: effort, proficiency, expertise, commitment and acumen. I call these the drivers, or even the virtues, of excellence. There’s no way around them, and they are powerful and necessary qualities to have and to maximize on our road to achievement. Excellent performers in every walk of life, from CEOs to trumpet players to plumbers, achieve their aims as a result of applying these five drivers.

The problem starts when we experience how each of these drivers are in fact finite. They are in limited supply. They are not self-sustaining or renewable. They deplete. In other words, the drivers of excellence are like a natural resource that does not sustain and as a result, people and the organizations they populate do not sustain. Every master performer, from sports to art and beyond, knows this. Consider:

1. Effort

Effort is work — pure calories in action. It is required to achieve anything; no pain, no gain. Without effort, we remain dreamers. But effort is confined to our finite, physical or mental capacities, so it is not self-sustaining and therefore can’t endure endlessly. Eventually, without rest, we tire and sustain injury.

2. Proficiency

Proficiency is an acquired capability, a specific technique or skill required to do a task well. We develop and hone these skills in order to become excellent. But while proficiency tells us what we need to do, as a cost of entry it neither identifies nor leverages what we uniquely can do. Proficiency lacks direction, purpose and voice.

3. Expertise

Expertise is specialized, accrued knowledge and know-how. It can differentiate us, but it doesn’t see to the heart or to the horizon of things. Expertise has no vision.

4. Commitment

Commitment is willpower, and the readiness to sacrifice in order to reach a desired outcome. Commitment stays the course, but it can become rigid and inflexible. Often it is just the mental partner of effort, failing to see itself wearing out and becoming frayed and stiff, especially as circumstances change.

5. Acumen

Acumen is the strategic ability to make good choices in a complex, changing and competitive environment. But it does not tell us which goals to pursue or why they are important. Acumen is merely tactical.

Stay tuned for Part II where we’ll turn the corner and see what sustainable people can be like, before making it real in Part III.


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