The world we live in is becoming increasingly complex and uncertain. And with it, the conventional thinking of yesterday is no longer sufficient. Creating real, breakthrough opportunities requires a fundamental change in our thinking. As Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
There’s no better example of this than the myth of the four-minute mile.
For centuries, runners had been attempting to run a mile in under four minutes. In the 1950s, the quest to break the barrier took on renewed importance, and a number of famous runners publicly and unsuccessfully attempted the challenge. Many of the newspapers of the day began to question whether humans would ever be able to run a sub-four-minute mile. Then, in 1954, a man named Roger Bannister did the unthinkable. He broke through the imaginary barrier, running the mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. It was an amazing achievement.
But here’s what’s really interesting: it was only forty-six days later that another runner broke Bannister’s record. And the following year, two new runners broke the four-minute mark in the same race. Dozens followed, and as of this writing, more than 1,400 runners have accomplished the feat, including one runner who ran two miles in less than eight minutes.
Did something change with respect to human anatomy, track conditions, weather patterns, running shoes, or the human diet between the start of Bannister’s race and the few years that followed? No. So what explains the sudden and dramatic explosion of athletic achievement?
The myth’s hypnotic power over runners had lifted. What Bannister had done was not just break the four-minute-mile barrier; he shattered the myth that created the barrier in the first place. This paradigm had offered a limited set of actions available for runners to take. With the paradigm no longer in place, a whole new set of actions became available. Runners were literally free to run through the invented boundary.
Imagine, if you will, that a runner came along and ran a sub-three-minute mile. Impossible, right? Yet, all of a sudden, the actions runners would take–that they could now see as available to them–would shift immediately. Training regimens, diets, running styles would all be examined, reconsidered, and tinkered with. All of this would happen because a new paradigm had replaced an old one that had locked runners into conventional ways of running. Runners would now be running in a new world.
Creating breakthroughs requires shattering the myths and paradigms that constrain our imagination and lock us into conventional thinking. Here’s an example from the business world, in one of my roles as CEO.
Shattering Invisible Barriers in Business
The organization I had joined was operating in a highly regulatory environment; compliance was an essential part of our culture. We simply could not afford to make mistakes. Doing so could shut down our business. It was sometimes frustrating to adhere to the laws and regulations of our industry, but it inspired a strong attention to detail and accountability to high standards. At the same time, however, there were shadow effects from our emphasis on compliance. One area, in particular, was employee relations.
Over the years, the organization had become so concerned with the risk of employee lawsuits that it increasingly avoided having honest employee development conversations. This, in turn, led to a dearth (and sometimes complete absence) of written communications documenting performance issues. Given the lack of written evidence, managers felt unable to dismiss employees who were underperforming or, in some cases, who had committed grievous errors.
When I joined the organization as CEO, this vicious cycle had been in place for years. Almost immediately, I began to question why we were tolerating underperformance and why we weren’t doing a better job having very direct, yet kind, conversations with members of our team who weren’t meeting expectations. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was playing the role of “the fish who could see the water.” I had enough wisdom, courage, and tolerance for risk to challenge how things had been done for years.
In my second month in the role, I was preparing to host a one-day meeting with our top one hundred leaders. This would be the first time I was in front of all of our top employees. I knew I had to say something about this issue. We simply had to raise our level of performance if we were going to stay in business, let alone succeed.
The day before the meeting, I called our general counsel, whom I’ll call Lisa. “Lisa,” I said, “I need to know by the end of the day how many employee lawsuits we’ve had in the last twelve months, how many have gone to trial, how many have settled, and how much we’ve spent in judgments and settlements from those lawsuits.”
Lisa called me back within the hour. “Darren, you’re not going to believe this,” she said. “I went back over the last five years. An average of nine employees sue each year. None have ever gone to trial. The average amount we spend each year in settling these lawsuits is about $100,000, and most of that is covered by our insurance.”
I couldn’t believe it. An organization of more than 3,000 employees was being held hostage and suffering through massive underperformance without facing any material financial risk.
The next day, I started my remarks with an inspiring story of how we were going to reinvent our industry and realize our bold mission. I could see that virtually all one hundred people in the room were engaged and onboard. And then I paused. I said that there was no way we were going to achieve this vision if we continued to be afraid of having direct conversations with one another and hold one another accountable to high standards of performance. The days of not having those conversations were over, I asserted, as was the unwillingness to terminate employees who were not meeting the clear expectations of their roles (provided we had communicated with them in an ongoing, direct, and honest manner).
A few people raised their hands and offered reasons why this wasn’t possible. I thanked them for their honesty and courage in speaking up, reassured them I was listening (which I was), and then told them we had no choice. The decision had been made. The myth that we couldn’t have tough conversations and let people go when they weren’t performing to clear and reasonable expectations had been shattered. The vicious cycle had been disrupted, and my choice to question the deeply held beliefs of the organization had provided the conditions for a new virtuous cycle–a new paradigm–to emerge.
Think about your own situation. What paradigm are you stuck in? What would it take to question the everyday assumptions that lock you into a conventional way of thinking? And what would be possible if you had the courage to challenge the myths and paradigms that seem obvious to everyone else?
Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books–written by men–barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.