Finishing the human race – lessons we might learn from the Olympics

In recent weeks I’ve noticed business coaches rushing to make comparisons between their role in the corporate world and Olympic coaches.  Not to be left behind I have decided to venture some reflections of my own.

With records set to be broken on British soil in the next few weeks there are lessons to be learned from the Olympic spirit that can inspire all who strive for excellence and ethics in their practice.  Of course we admire exceptional personal achievement and the focus and dedication that produces it.  But what lies behind this passion and is this a good model for us to follow?  In what ways are the Olympic athletes an inspiration for good work?

There are several qualities that are essential to sporting excellence.  What separates Olympic athletes from the rest of us is not just physical strength, stamina, or skill, but mental commitment.  When many of us might yield to inner doubt, Olympians believe they can still win.  Even when adversity strikes they pick themselves up and start again.  Nerves are overcome with a strong dose of self-belief.  Developing this level of confidence to reach the top often involves time with a sports psychologist not just a physical trainer.

The carrot for an Olympic athlete, of course, is a gold medal.  The motivation to succeed keeps them going through the long hours of training, pushing themselves to the edge of their ability, time after time, after time.  To break a record in London an athlete will have come close to the record many times before.  In London they will be pushing harder than ever before to exceed their personal best.

But winning a medal is more than just running the race.  It comes from the accumulation of good decisions – listening to the advice of family and friends, coaches and psychologists, and choosing what really works.  Add to this the pressure a modern athlete is under from the all seeing gaze of the media.  This suggests that top athletes need a strength of character – courage if you like – to make tough decisions.  A brave decision can make the difference between silver and gold.

Confidence, motivation, courage – these are qualities we all aspire to, but in the human race these are focussed not just on the 100 metres sprint but on the whole of life.  In competitive sport there is only one winner.  We all enjoy the intensity of competition and the excitement of winning.  But if we don’t win – if we don’t quite reach the top – does that mean the rest of us are losers?  No.

In life we are all rewarded in different ways.  Success is not measured by the trophies we win, the money we make, or the status we achieve.  Our personal vocation is to fulfil ourselves, to become all we can be, to give all we can to our world.  In this sense I am reminded of St Paul’s image of himself as an athlete.  “I have run the race, I have finished the course,” he said.  The prize is not just for the winner but for the finisher.  Perhaps the London Marathon, not the London Olympics, is a better image for personal achievement.  Many of those we applaud in the Marathon finish the course far behind the winners, sometimes by hours or even days.  Everyone that finishes is a champion.

What can sustain us on the long haul of professional excellence?  Yes we need to build confidence, sustain our motivation, and develop the courage to take tough decisions.  But how are these qualities nurtured?  Where do these qualities come from?  It is here that we might learn the most.  It is not just in having experiences but learning from them, in paying attention to the moment, and in engaging with the disappointments and challenges that life springs upon us.  These are the disciplines of life that lay the foundation for good work.

This may not be the language that sports coaches use but, I suggest, they are the disciplines that make the difference between those who complete the course and those who fall at the final hurdle.

When Technical Rationality isn’t enough: Becoming Artists of our Practice

I have written in earlier blogs about the technical-rational approach to professional practice.  Technical rationality has deep roots in the human psyche.  There is a natural human desire to bring order out of chaos.  Managers are employed not just to resource the production process but to keep it running smoothly.

Technical rationality attempts to reduce professional practice to clear, precise procedures that can be measured and managed effectively.  The goal is to eliminate surprise.  As organisations grow larger, front line staff must be able to respond, in the moment, to whatever confronts them, confident that they know what to do.  Proper procedures ensure that their response is on message, and meets required standards.

But all of us probably know of circumstances when everything has been done by the book and it still goes wrong.  Despite all the training we can still be caught by surprise.  Sometimes the incident is brushed under the carpet, or it may be reported to the occupational standards committee to be incorporated in the next edition of the procedures manual.  Instead of facing the questions that arise from the unexpected outcome, new procedures are created to guide the practitioner through the next occurrence.

When we treat surprises as exceptions rather than the norm, people become numb and no longer pay attention (until the really big disaster occurs).  Systems of control are increased and procedures “improved” rather than questioned, as if the complexities of the workplace can be accounted for by increasing the size of the company manual.  But proceduralisation can be suffocating.  Donald Schon pointed out almost 30 years ago that managers and staff become involved in games of control and avoidance of control, sapping creative energy from the system.  In what appears to be a paradox, standards fall as procedures and control increase.

Am I carricaturing current practice?  Only slightly.  It is not that the book is wrong, but it is never enough.  What is wrong is the assumption that by technical rational means alone we can eliminate the unexpected.  Whatever you do to try and eliminate surprises, they won’t go away.

There is another way of handling surprise, however, one that can move us from technical rationality to become true artists of our practice.  Those surprises occur as cracks in the surface of reality when the underlying assumptions are under stress and need to change.  Rather than pasting them over with a new procedure, they can be seen as the visible presence of deeper questions.

As we struggle to make sense of situations like this our practice will change, bringing greater alignment between the way we think about the world and the way the world is.  Graceful action, I suggest, is not the domain of people with certain personality traits but the fruit of patient, appreciative attention to each moment.

Put succinctly the artful practitioner is responsive to surprise, working it into their performance.  The knowledge hidden in the cracks is often tacit, difficult to articulate or pass on.  But masters of their craft have learned how to engage in critical conversation with the situation, and communicate it to others.

In all its various forms – Best Practice, Evidence-based Practice, Competence-based Training, etc – technical rationality is an attempt to eliminate surprise.  On the other hand the master craftsman engages with it, learns from it and remakes a part of their practice world as a result (Schon 1987).

Or, to put it differently, if we want to do good work, I suggest we take the advice of Jesus who said the only way into the kingdom was to become like a child.  Children are not just innocent.  They are also curious.

Schön, D. A., (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. New York, Basic Books.
Schon, D. A., (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions. Jossey-Bass.

A story says it best: beyond technical rationality in Taoist terms

Sometimes, as I write, I can feel the language straining to convey what I want to say.  I can imagine that for you, the reader, words about technical rationality and good work, competence and critical appreciation (as in my last blog), can feel distant, leaving a sense of “so what?”  At times like this a story says it best.  This one, The Woodcarver, comes from The Way of Chuang Tzu, a collection of poems and stories first brought to the attention of the western world by Thomas Merton.

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood.
When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded.
They said it must be
The work of spirits. 
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver: 
"What is your secret?" 

Khing replied: "I am only a workman: 
I have no secret. There is only this: 
When I began to think about the work you commanded 
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it 
On trifles, that were not to the point. 
I fasted in order to set 
My heart at rest. 
After three days fasting, I had forgotten gain and success. 
After five days 
I had forgotten praise or criticism. 
After seven days 
I had forgotten my body 
With all its limbs. 

"By this time all thought of your Highness 
And of the court had faded away. 
All that might distract me from the work 
Had vanished. 
I was collected in the single thought 
Of the bell stand. 

"Then I went to the forest 
To see the trees in their own natural state. 
When the right tree appeared before my eyes, 
The bell stand also appeared in it, 
clearly, beyond doubt. 
All I had to do was to put forth my hand 
and begin. 

"If I had not met this particular tree 
There would have been 
No bell stand at all. 

"What happened? 
My own collected thought 
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood; 
From this live encounter 
came the work 
Which you ascribe to the spirits.