By Alan Ward

We don’t know our limits until we push past them.

 Is this true?  It sounds like it could be true.  If you asked me, though, if I knew my limits my automatic thinking answer would be “Yeah, pretty well.”  I more or less know what I can and cannot do.  Ergo, I probably know my limits.

My deeper thinking process, however, would question that conclusion.  All I really know is what I have done, what I have done well or not so well, and what I stay away from doing.  I know my experience, but not my limits.

I wonder to what extent organizations tend to default to the same automatic thinking.  Organizations can be like people.  Like us, they can fall into habitual patterns that come to define the boundaries of their experience.  So, how well do we really understand our organizational limits?  Maybe not that well.

Notwithstanding that we do our best to think innovatively and we may make significant headway from time to time, the truth is that we mostly do what we do.  In many instances, what we collectively do may look very similar to what we did yesterday and on many of the days before yesterday.  On occasion, we find ourselves in a time and resource squeeze and it is all-hands-on-deck and we pull off something remarkable.  We acknowledge the effort, and then look for a correction because whatever that was, it is not something that want to do too often. We pushed past a limit in a way that we had not planned and we were not ready for it.  It was disruptive and difficult.

But… what if we did plan for it?  What if we systematically took a look at what we do and how we do it?  Not so much with a process improvement hat on, but with an eye to understanding how our perceptions about our limits constrains us.   An examination of our assumptions about what may be possible, and what is not, might lead to that most amazing of insights: I think we can do that.  In some ways, this realization of new possibilities forms the essence of truly significant performance improvement.

The process of challenging our thinking at this fundamental level is neither easy nor intuitive, and typically requires a structured, objective approach.  Gains will be made and over time they may well be game-changers.  Our anticipation in the shorter term, however, may perhaps more realistically be framed within the increasingly catalytic value of the exercise.

Challenging our thinking and pushing our assumptions around prompts us to stand in curiosity about our organizational capability.  Done well and often enough, a state of persistent curiosity can become culturally ingrained.  It is in this space – based in a challenge to the status quo — where we come to recognize limits through which we can push and organizational habits that no longer serve us.  This kind of targeted inquisitiveness can lead to breakthrough thinking.  If this process is something that your organization learns to do, and practices, it becomes the game-changer.

Alan Ward is Senior Associate, Organizational Performance with The Portage Group.



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