By Dominic Irvine, Founder, Epiphanies LLP
Can you believe it? They had promised the customer they would get the work done and they hadn’t done it. As one of the partners in the business, I soaked up the criticism from the customer and accepted blame and promised to get it sorted. I listened with boredom to the litany of excuses from my colleague as to why the work hadn’t been done. I was, to say the least incredibly frustrated. If you say you’re going to do something - then do it.
This experience and others like it over the last few years has led me to the inescapable conclusion - it’s not about teamwork. To be brutally honest - I’ve learned this because of my own failings. Here’s why:
You can’t excuse your way to success
One of my hobbies is ultra distance cycling. Over the last few years I’ve tried twice to break the record for riding a tandem bike from one end of the UK to the other as fast as possible. I’ve failed. I can rationalise the failures each time with a whole list of reasons why, but they are just excuses. And, as was once said ‘you can’t excuse your way to success’. On each occasion I thought I had turned over every stone in my quest for improvements in performance and each time came short. I can tell you now that confronting the fact that you simply did not do enough is uncomfortable, unpleasant and hard. It’s more painful than listening to the excuses given by others in their explanation of failure.
It’s also liberating - the brutal truth allows you to spot what you need to do to keep improving. I have found very little as satisfying as a solid improvement in performance. Here’s the rub, you can have the nice chat you want about ‘what the team needs to do’ but ultimately it’s individuals that have to actually ‘do the doing’. Enough individuals in the team making improvements in a coordinated way leads to improvements in performance, but please don’t be under any illusions. Improvement is an individual activity.
Moments of truth
Getting the job done often seems to come down to ‘moments of truth’. These are those decision points when you either decide to do what you said you were going to do or give up. I faced such a decision point with my tandem riding partner just the other day. It was 2am, we were on an all night training ride. It was raining, cold, pitch black and we had suffered a major mechanical problem with the bike. We still had half the ride to go. We looked at each other - we could either call to be rescued or somehow find a way of continuing. We chose the latter. We limped back home on a bodged repair and at 4am were in the workshop replacing broken parts. Half an hour later we were back on the road completing the ride.
It felt fantastic to have completed what we set out to do. When the chips are down it’s the internal dialogue that takes place leading to the decision to ‘make it happen’ that’s critical in performance. It’s an individual decision. What makes ‘moments of truth’ so tough is that the alternative is always very reasonable and justifiable and excusable - but that’s the point - it’s back to ‘you can’t excuse your way to success’.
Letter to Garcia
Many years ago I stood on the stage in front of 200 people and challenged them to tell me about ‘A letter to Garcia’. I gave them 5 minutes. Some people didn’t even bother trying - what could they do? They were sat in a conference room with little or no idea what the hell I was going on about. Most of the delegates had a conversation with each other to see whether anybody knew the answer. Some, using the embryonic internet access they had on their phones at the time struggled to search on Google. Others rang friends and had them do the search back at the office. You could see their sense of satisfaction and the epiphanies on the faces of those who cracked the challenge and understood the message within.
In that small sample of 200 people, some had simply failed at that first ‘moment of truth’ and opted instead for the excuse that it was an unreasonable request to be expected to find out given their circumstance. They were right, it was unreasonable. But they still didn’t have the answer. The second group came good at the ‘moment of truth’ and at least had a go at finding out. But ultimately, they failed. They didn’t know the answer either but at least they could hold their heads high and know they had tried. It was the final group that nailed the answer. They were persistent, curious and motivated. It was that unreasonable unwillingness to give in that saw them succeed.
Individuals not teams
My point is this. All successful people with any sense of modesty and humility recognise that their success depends in very large part on the efforts of others - that’s teamwork. Underpinning teamwork is individual performance. It’s facing the cold, brutal truth again and again of whether you did what you said you were going to do. Its recognising those ‘moments of truth’ and deciding you can rather than you can’t. It’s about being relentlessly curious and persistent in your approach. With these foundations in place, we can then discuss how people work together as a team.
So here’s some homework. Find out about ‘A letter to Garcia’. If you do, you’ve faced a mini moment of truth, made the right decision and will have the sense of satisfaction of being someone ‘in the know’. Of course, if you don’t I’m sure you have a good excuse - but you still won’t know what I’m on about.