Improving Over Time

As I am writing this, Indianapolis – my home for nearly 40 years – is still basking in the overwhelming success of hosting Super Bowl XLVI. Those who led the multi-year effort did a magnificent job planning and executing a week-long series of events that exceeded almost everyone’s expectations. In fact, I suspect the only people who weren’t surprised may have been those who led the immense effort. They expected it to be great, and it was.

When there’s a major goal that captures the imagination of and mobilizes a lot of people, good things can happen. In the early 1960s, President Kennedy issued a challenge for the U.S. to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade. It happened. In a very different type of situation last year that some people liked and others didn’t, we saw uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya that had a defined goal of overthrowing long-standing regimes. They succeeded, but now they are faced with the very different challenge of building a different kind of society.

Building a society, changing a culture, solving a major social problem are open-ended challenges that have no defined end. It’s harder to mobilize people around open-ended challenges and sustain their interest and involvement over time than it is for a task with a defined end goal within a time frame of a few years or less.

I’ve now led the same organization for the better part of four decades. Occasionally, someone will ask me what I’m most proud of in my career. My answer is always the same. It’s not any one development or accomplishment. Rather, it’s how far we’ve come over time. It’s not all about growth, although we have certainly grown a lot. More importantly, the organization functions at a much higher level than it did earlier in my career. We are much more effective and have much greater positive impact in the lives of people and in the communities in which we operate than was the case even a decade ago. I’m also more convinced than ever that the greatest accomplishments and life’s greatest rewards come from making and keeping long term commitments.

Organizational development and evolution over time are never linear. We have our ups and downs, our successes and our failures. It’s a never ending process that – at least in our case – involves a lot of small, incremental improvements and occasional major new developments. From time to time, we also have to stop doing things that have outlived their usefulness or that we have found are simply not a good fit. Of course, there are plenty of projects within the organization that have a defined beginning and end, and there are plenty of milestones along the way that are worth celebrating.

Some of the challenges we face in our society today have developed over a period of several decades. There is much debate over causes and solutions. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that there are no quick fixes. The time it will take to substantially reduce some of our societal problems will be measured in decades rather than years. To sustain the required effort and commitment long enough, we need to focus on a well-defined set of short, medium, and long term metrics, concentrate resources on improving those metrics, shift resources when necessary, and celebrate successes. Problems such as many of those we now face have resulted from a downward spiral over a long period of time. With enough concerted effort over a long enough period of time, we can create an upward spiral that will build on successes and eventually perhaps even sustain itself.

Advertisements