The Sky Is Not The Limit

By Andrew Grant and Gaia Grant

Motivating teams through balancing competition and cooperation

"A hundred years ago, as the nineteenth century drew to a close, scientists around the world were satisfied that they had arrived at an accurate picture of the physical world….If you were to say to a physicist in 1899 that in 1999, a hundred years later, moving images would be transmitted into homes all over the world from satellites in the sky; that microscopes would be able to see individual atoms; that people would carry telephones weighing a few ounces, and speak anywhere in the world without wires – if you said all this, the physicist would almost certainly pronounce you mad. Most of these developments could not have been predicted in 1899, because prevailing scientific theory said they were impossible. Even the most informed scientists standing on the threshold of the twentieth century had no idea what was to come.” Michael Crichton, Timeline"

It’s strange that as we enter the third millennium, we only now seem to be starting to understand just how ignorant we really are about the great mysteries of the universe. We now know we have not discovered all that is to be discovered, nor have we arrived at an accurate view of the world scientifically, mentally, socially, emotionally or spiritually.

With increasingly superior research and technology, we are realising that what was once thought of as the upper limit – “the sky” – is no longer a prohibitive boundary. What was unimaginable no more than a few years ago is becoming well within our reach, and revealing at the same time how much more there is to discover.

Such rapid progress may, however, come at a cost. Bill Joy, the chief scientist from Sun Microsystems Inc warns that, “The future is rushing at us at incredible speed, and people just haven’t thought it through. We have to deal with the risks.” He fears that rapid high-tech advances could lead to man-made electronic and biological scourges – and the possible extinction of the human race by the mid-century. He has cautioned all scientists to stop and think about the spirit of unfettered freedom of scientific inquiry.

We must continue to progress, but we must also know to where we want to progress. Progress for the sake of progress is pointless. In what ways, then, should we be aiming to grow into the next century? Because we are developing technologically at such a frightening rate, it is becoming clear that we need to work on and improve our human resources, on our interactive capabilities.

The challenge of the future

When we talk with some individuals and hear about their companies and how limited they are in terms of human resource development, suggesting taking a team approach to problem solving can be seen to be an impossible option. Why? Because the prevailing theory says it’s impossible to work in harmony and achieve superior results. Many people have little faith in their company and the current operating systems, the individual core values and their work peers. Having a limited vision can paralyse them, stopping them from moving forward and exploring new and better ways of achieving.

Just as efficient technological networks are the way of the future, effective human networks will need to be developed to connect people and their varied ideas and resources. Although technological networks are already being recognised as a powerful force, as yet the importance of human team networks has not been fully appreciated. Through finding common pathways of understanding, recognising different talents, combining resources, and sharing roles people will be able to access much more than they ever have before. Just as speed and the depth of connection are the new keys to technological growth, and are allowing humanity to penetrate deeper into the unknown, efficient and effective communication may also be the keys to human growth.

But a network is only as fast and effective as its weakest link. In the same way that progress in technology is slowed down by incompatibility, teams also must learn to see the big picture and find a common platform. Internal politics, inadequate leadership, and a destructive competitive approach often slow down whole company teams and smaller specialised teams (departmental/task groups). Coupled with a lack of understanding of what can turn an ordinary work group into a high performance work team, individuals and companies neglect exploring positive new possibilities, failing to reach anywhere near their full potential.

Often, it seems, the weakest link in a company is not a lack of intelligence or energy, but the way these are channelled.

Performance @ the speed of team competence

Bill Gates’ book “Business @ the Speed of Thought” explores a great concept. As thought and light are the fastest known means of travel, he discusses how we can utilise progressive technological concepts to maximise business opportunities. But at the same time as maximising strengths such as these, it is important to recognize the need to minimise weaknesses.

Those individuals or work teams that are most able to achieve in business are often the most driven people in the company. People who are highly driven are often also the most highly competitive people, and if this competitiveness is not monitored it can do more harm than good. More than having efficient techniques and practices, having effective communication strategies and ways of relating and working with others will ultimately determine the success of individuals and companies.

Daniel Goldman calls this emotional intelligence, and believes this will be the greatest measure of competence and creative excellence in the future.

Healthy competition?

Many people need some type of motivation in order to work well, and often this comes from the need to be competitive. But people who are unaware of the different types of competitiveness that they engage in may end up defaulting to harmful competition, and may end up creating a culture that is self-defeating. It is the type of competition that results in a win at the expense of others that is destructive.

Like in a war, if the emphasis is always on either attacking or defending against the opposition, although there may appear to be apparent winners there will more often be losers. Progress will always be at someone else’s expense.

There can quite a few problems with such a competitive emphasis…

Such a war-like goal can be counter-productive:

“A goal or vision limited to beating the opposition is transitory. Once the vision is achieved, it can easily migrate into a defensive pursuit of “protecting what we have.” Such defensive goals rarely call forth the creativity and excitement of building something new.”

Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Undermining group ethos

There is a story from ancient Israel of how the people of the earth came together to build the world’s biggest tower, the Tower of Babel. They thought that by building a tall tower they could control the world, and they decided to play God. The story says, however, that this desire was incompatible with the end goal by its very nature, and prevented the tower from actually being built. The very strong success orientation that drove them to control the world was the factor that prevented them from being successful in achieving their goal.

Before long the project degenerated into destructive competition, and individual needs were being sought after at the expense of the whole group. Eventually everyone was speaking different languages and unable to communicate effectively.

That same individual drive for success and lack of concern for the needs of the group as a whole still plagues organisations today, particularly those that place an emphasis on individualised competitive achievement. Hidden agendas, people not saying what they mean and not meaning what they say, work colleagues complaining they’re not all “speaking the same language” – these are the sorts of issues that companies will continue to face while they have a destructive competitive focus. Ultimately, these problems lead to a loss of trust and respect, which undermines company ethos and effectiveness.

Beyond competition to collaboration

Research on star performers reveals these people achieve 300% more than their peers. They are competitive in the way that they push themselves, but they do not try to “beat’ others. The most common attribute in star performers is they collaborate effectively, rather than competing.

Collins and Porras have also found that the most successful individuals and companies of the last 100 years know exactly what they stand for and why they exist. They concentrate on developing the company rather than simply trying to develop great products.

Competition can quickly turn to individualism and before long defeat the very purpose of motivating teams. Just as individuals can be emotionally hijacked by stress, so can teams be hijacked by an unchecked and unmonitored lust for success at all cost. Core values and excellence can end up taking a back seat while competition drives the group along the road at frightening and dangerous speeds.

Developing the human network

Over 1 million individual parts make up an airplane, but each part is not the plane in itself. It is not the individual parts of a plane, but the completed construction that makes it work that gives it a definition. The identity of the airplane exists only in the function and design of the whole.

It is not the individual links that make up the network, but the complex channel between them. It is not the people within a company that make the company work and give it definition, but the way they interact that is important. This is the human network. The identity of a company exists only in the function and design of the whole.

When people in companies can start to recognize the importance of this mindset and the enormity of what could be achieved if talented individuals worked together as a team, then they can truly say that, “the sky is no longer the limit”.

We have just had a century of unimaginable progress with technology, now lets dream of a century of unimaginable progress in human achievement. The sky is not the limit.

An excerpt from Andrew and Gaia Grant’s upcoming book “Building Villages, Not Empires”

© 2000.

 

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