World Class and Other Nonsense Statements
Someday the history books will document the life and times of the person who drove out the term “World Class” from the business world lexicon. This nauseating phrase is typically found in close proximity to a statement involving taking something to the “next level”. It is too much to hope that one individual could slay both these sayings, but one can dream.
The 80% Rule
One of the challenges in life is to objectively judge your level of achievement in a given discipline. Know too little about a subject and it’s easy to think you’re an expert, hang around experts in the field and you will think yourself a dunce. Why should you care to know? Becoming a leader in anything worth leading takes enormous resources. This is true of people and companies. It’s a position that few will truly attain; it’s a pursuit better left to the unbalanced. So, my suggestion is to strive for the 80% mark, declare victory and move on. The last 20% of any proficiency takes on logarithmic proportions, leaving little time in your life for the truly important things like reality television viewing.
The Proficiency Road Map
So, how do you know when you reach 80% proficiency? Like physicists looking for dark matter, we will not be able to tell directly, we need to look for signs. Here is my easy guide to understanding achievement:
Petersen’s Road Map to Excellence Stage 1: Unconscious
You can only tell this one after you passed this milestone. This is the stage when you didn’t even know there was a discipline.
Petersen’s Road Map to Excellence Stage 2: Overwhelmed
Somehow you have stumbled into a field of knowledge and skill and realize that your sole understanding of it is to know that it exists. Take heart, this is actually a big leap forward. The stage can best be described as a whirling, swirling, mass of unconnected points. If it were a road you would get run over the moment your foot touched the street.
Petersen’s Road Map to Excellence Stage 3: Novice
You have connected a few of the dots, you are trying out some rudimentary tasks and you’re starting to ask questions. It's not entirely clear how things fit together, but you see how some of the pieces fit and understand the general direction in which you need to head. If you were a skier, you have just made it down the bunny hill. It’s a time of fear and excitement.
Petersen’s Road Map to Excellence Stage 4: Learner
You have decided to make a commitment to get better. You will know you’re in this phase because it goes on forever, it’s painful because of all the mistakes you make, and snarky people that are more advanced than you will make condescending remarks behind your back unless you are a young child.
Petersen’s Road Map to Excellence Stage 5: Mirage
You have spent enough time working on your discipline that it seems like you know something. Many people will be impressed with your proficiency and you will begin to believe them. Unfortunately, you have not progressed enough to warrant the attention of anyone who is actually proficient in the field. This is the most dangerous stage because it’s easy to remain here forever, blissfully unaware. However, it’s not a bad place to stop if your life expectancy is growing short.
Petersen’s Road Map to Excellence Stage 6: Holy Shit
This is the moment when you realize that after countless hours of investment, that not only are you not an expert, but the distance between you and a true expert is so vast you can’t even believe it. Accidently encountering a true expert in the field typically precipitates this realization. While this is a discouraging moment, take heart in the fact that most people will never get to this point. It is at this moment you have a choice: dig in or start drinking and return to stage 5. Don’t kid yourself; the last one is not a bad option. It’s unlikely anybody at the bar can refute your claims.
Petersen’s Road Map to Excellence Stage 7: Practicing
Much like the learning phase, this period takes forever, has some highs and lots of lows, and devours all of your free will. You will know you have reached this stage when the experts tolerate your presence, because you are useful as a servant. You will have mastered most of the rules and will have an understanding of why the difficult problems are difficult. You will also begin to realize that your own natural abilities are limiting, but you have achieved weary acceptance of this fact. You will also notice more lines on your face.
Petersen’s Road Map to Excellence Stage 8: Space Between the Lines
In any field, a privileged few will reach the point of not only mastering the known set of rules, but will see the spaces in-between. They are the true experts, the innovators. Don’t be discouraged that most of them are 27 years old. When you reach this level of proficiency, everything slows down; you see all the spaces still to be colored. You can explain advance concepts in ways that make their existence known to others. You can bend and shape the field. While you may or may not be humble about your lofty attainment, you will certainly know why humility is warranted.
Are We There Yet?
So, where is the 80% point? It’s hard to say. If it’s in relation to your own abilities, you will not know until it’s over and your pictures are up on the poster board. If however, it’s in comparison to others, it’s the day you discover stage 6. So, how does this information make you more money or your company more competitive? Because it’s very hard to succeed on the basis of a lie. And in the business world that lie is usually accompanied by the phrase “world class”. My own personal journey is best summed up with the phrase; “Bartender, what do you have on tap?”
About the Author
Tom Petersen is the Managing Partner of ThreeCore, an operational consulting firm in Beverly, Massachusetts. Tom consults for multinational companies engaged in the design and manufacture of high-tech products. His team is dedicated to helping companies create competitive advantages using innovative strategies and process-driven improvement. For more information go to www.threecore.com or follow Tom on twitter @3CoreConsulting.