Focus: stop kidding yourself, you can’t give 110%

During a client conversation last week, I poured some water into a glass, and it overflowed slightly. Clumsy he said, to which I replied, Not really, I always give 110%.

But I made the point because its one of my favourite bugbears: You CANNOT give 110% effort, and this chap had used the phrase five times already, trying to convince me he was going to be the next Elon Musk.

I call on the mathematically literate to join forces with me and together defeat the scourge of giving 110%. It’s a numeracy blight on the intelligence and lexicon of our country and it needs to be stopped. For non-pedants wondering why this phrasing that peppers sports vox pops and TV talent shows annoys me so much, maximum effort is 100% – 110% is beyond your capacity.

Even 101% means you are making an effort beyond your actual capacity. Some may argue it’s justified as you’re increasing your effort beyond what you thought was possible for you – you’re going the extra mile – yet that’s irrelevant as the percentage is a measure of maximum output.

You can only pour water into a glass to fill it 100%, and thus you can only spill 100%. The expectation to give or receive 110% would also mean it would have to be reasonable to expect many other things that fly in the face of logic and what is impossible according to the laws of physics. A day is 24 hours in duration so how could you expect it to magically become 26.5 hours long? Where is the 110% there? An idiomatic expression for going beyond, that’s all, but it’s meaningless.

You can still only give 100%. If your effort output has increased, you need to recalibrate, so what you before called 100% effort, should now be seen as 91% effort. If we act generously and find a way to uncap the effort limit by arguing that the percentage given relates to average not maximum effort – then in fact 110% isn’t trying that hard.

I know this is a lot of numbers, but stick with me. I recall walking into the front room one Saturday afternoon before Christmas and the dog was watching Sky Sports, when one footballer being interviewed promised to give 110% and later another promised 150%. Did this mean one was going to output more effort than the other? No, it means both of them were talking utter poppycock.

Maybe I’m too literal, maybe I’m too curmudgeonly, but you can only give 100%. I know the phrase is meant to embody the notion of doing more than what was thought to be possible, but to me it puts the emphasis on the wrong element. It’s not that you did more than you could, which is impossible, it’s that you had the wrong assumption about what was possible to begin with.

So I’m a founder member of the Quantitative Pedants 2017. Of course, percentages greater than 100 are possible, that’s how startups experience 200% growth in year-over-year revenue, to pick one example. It all depends on what your baseline is – x% of what?

Here’s actually a more serious (and more mathematically precise) way to look at this. Economist Stephen Shmanske produced a paper titled Dynamic Effort, Sustainability, Myopia, and 110% Effort that actually brings some stats and benchmarks to bear to figure this out in the right context.

For Shmanske, it’s all about defining what counts as 100% effort. Let’s say ‘100%’ is the maximum amount of effort that can be consistently sustained. With this benchmark, it’s obviously possible to give less than 100%, but it’s also possible to give more. All you have to do is put forth an effort that can only be sustained inconsistently, for short periods of time. In other words, you’re overclocking.

And in fact, based on the numbers, entrepreneurs pull >100% off relatively frequently, putting forth more effort in short bursts than they can keep up over a longer period. In giving greater than 100% can reduce your ability to subsequently and consistently give 100%. You overdraw your account, and don’t have anything left. This seem like a rough-but-reasonable analysis of what athletes and other people mean when they use the ‘110%’ language this way?

Why do we set these unrealistic expectations for ourselves? What makes me think that I am the exception that I have any more than 100% of myself to give? We can’t perform two tasks at 100% efficiency, crickey, I can hardly do one thing at 100% efficiency. Thus an elastic 100% does exist, but only temporarily, and at the cost of future performance – you borrow from the future in short-spurts of extraordinary effort.

As well-renowned basketball coach-come-philosopher John Wooden used to say to his players, if you don’t give 100% today you can’t make up for it tomorrow by giving 110%: your maximum effort is 100% of what you are capable of – period.

Every entrepreneur wishes there were more hours in a day to get their work done. These days, with all the new technology, many are convinced that multi-tasking is the answer. Yet there is more and more evidence that jumping tasks on every alert for a new email, text, or Skype call actually decreases overall productivity.

According to Rasmus Hougaard, the founder of the Potential Project, delivering mindfulness programs to Amex, Nike and Accenture, taking time for what matters, there are some basic rules that can help you manage your focus and awareness in work activities. Practicing these will ensure greater productivity, less stress, more job satisfaction, and an improved overall sense of well-being. You can only give the maximum effort (100%) and need a balance in that.

With mental health of entrepreneurs being given more attention now, to balance the machismo of I work 24/7, this is highly relevant. The guidance includes a singular focus for at least a few minutes on your current task, and limiting your distractions very strictly during this period. Don’t ever try to do two significant cognitive tasks at the same time, switching on a millisecond basis, or your attention will become fragmented and both will suffer.

Hougaard outlines eight mental strategies or habits that every entrepreneur needs to cultivate, to keep your mind clearer and calmer, and increase your overall productivity. I concur, based on my own experience in startup ventures and mentoring entrepreneurs. Examples of companies already coaching their teams on these mental strategies include Google, Starbucks, AOL, and more:

Mentally be fully present and engaged in the current task Presence is foundational for focus and mindfulness, it means always paying full attention to the people around you, making a conscious decision to intentionally be more present.

Deliver rational responses rather than impulsive reactions This requires patience, or the ability to stay calm in the face of challenging situations. Patience is more concerned with larger goals, rather than temporary quick-fix solutions. Practice by stopping and taking a few breaths to calm down, before reacting.

Choose to always give honest and constructive feedback It’s easy to give negative feedback and find the downside in a proposal made to you. However, make a conscious decision to always find the positive aspects, even if it’s a proposal that isn’t for you and you can see lots of downsides. Practice positivity in every interaction with people.

Approach every situation with a beginner’s mind Without a beginner’s mind, what you have seen and done in the past, called habitual perception, can be problematic. It means you may not actually see today’s reality. Practice by overtly rejecting any habitual perceptions, and challenging yourself to be more curious in your day-to-day activities.

Refrain from extended fighting with problems you can’t solve Accept and realise that every problem can’t be solved, and frustration won’t resolve the issue. It will just make you less effective and less happy. Practice by choosing to move on, without carrying an inner battle.

Balance your focus between instant gratification and discomfort work Consciously identify the tasks that come easy to you, versus tougher tasks, and also a balance between short-term and long-term, that inevitably have different levels of satisfaction once completed. Practicing awareness of balance will lead to a change in your level of quick distraction and long-term avoidance.

Proactively seek moments of joy throughout your day Most of us are ‘always on’, always connected and always running, all day. The key here is to anticipate at least some activities you enjoy daily. Many people find this in just sitting still for a few minutes in quiet contemplation, maybe reading or going for a walk. Whatever it is, just switch off and find some personal quiet time.

Consciously let go of heavy thoughts and distractions Letting go is a simple but powerful mental strategy to clear your mind and refocus on the task at hand. Let go of a problem stuck in your head means putting it to one side, focusing on another challenge and when you return, creating the opportunity to refocus your thoughts.

Without these initiatives to balance your effort and get a clear focus, most people will find their ability to focus declining, yet still live with the rhetoric of 110% effort. We all face overload, increased pressure to move fast, and a highly distracted work reality. Our attention is continuously under siege, with more things and stuff to do causing distractions.

So, instead of simply keeping going, trying to squeeze more out, continuing to deny yourself and the great mathematicians in the sky, instead look at Dave Brailsford’s Marginal Gains Strategy. Brailsford’s approach is to take a holistic view on what you do and determine how to achieve 1% improvement in everything. His premise is that the aggregation of small gains across the board adds up.

And he is right. The maths here is compelling, which is nice. If you do something better by 1% a day for a whole year, the aggregated gain is surprisingly significant: 1.01365 =37.78. The compound effect of a daily 1% improvement yields a multiplier of nearly 38 times your original performance output.

So, stop pushing yourself relentlessly and instead ask yourself: Where can I achieve an additional 1%? Look at where you can make a step-up, and create a focus on continuous improvement, not the end result. Brailsford did this with the Omnium team, were the World Record was 4.00 minutes. His challenge was: how do we achieve a performance time of 3.56 minutes? And they did just that.

Gamblers trust to luck, entrepreneurs trust in their own hard work. Maybe now with the focus on mental health and stress, simply looking inwards at the success you are achieving, it may be the time to increase your focus and accept no last minute rushes to ‘go the extra mile’ will make up for the times when you were not giving of your best. It just doesn’t work. Periods of extraordinary effort borrow from the future, until it all catches up on you.

In his fine article regarding nominal and ordinal bivariate statistics, Buchanan (1974) provided several criteria for a good statistic, and concluded: The percentage is the most useful statistic ever invented.

I’m not sure about that, but Thomas Edison captured it well, with his words: Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Maximum effort is the minimum requirement for sure, but 100% is all there is to give and that’s that. 100% means the whole thing. Everything. All of it. Your whole self. Nothing left. Nothing more.

Fifteen steps to implement Brailsford’s ‘theory of marginal gains’

For a number of years, Sir Dave Brailsford has spearheaded the track cycling revolution in Britain, helping turn the nation into a superpower. He is acknowledged as the ‘man who reinvented the wheel’. Brailsford is a fascinating man to study. He is an enigmatic presence, having developed a methodology and analysis to deliver truly world-class performance. He has a fierce reputation for making totally clinical and hard decisions.

When Brailsford became head of British Cycling in 2002, the team had almost no record of success: British cycling had only won a single gold medal in its 76-year history. Brailsford was instrumental in leading a period of unrivalled success for Great Britain.

Under his leadership, they won eight gold medals at three Olympics, and transformed the sport during his 10-year tenure as Performance Director of British Cycling. Since taking charge of Team Sky in 2009, Brailsford has masterminded Tour de France wins for Bradley Wiggins in 2012, and Chris Froome in 2013 and 2015.

Brailsford’s success has been across all categories of competition –individual road time trials, Keirins, Team Sprint, Team Pursuit and Omnium – developing riders who have now become household names – Bradley Wiggin, Chris Hoy, Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish, Ed Clancy, Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott.

Brailsford joined British Cycling in 1997 on the back of lottery funding and took over as Performance Director in 2003. He revolutionised the sport with his attention to detail, notably with his focus on the context of ‘marginal gains’, which brought Team GB 30 Olympic medals between 2004 and 2012. He was also instrumental in establishing the Manchester Vélodrome, an Olympic-standard track as the home of British Cycling.

Brailsford’s philosophy of ‘marginal gains’ came from the idea that if you break down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.

As well as looking at traditional components of success such as physical fitness and tactics, Brailsford’s approach focused on a more holistic strategy, embracing technological developments and athlete psychology. He is noted for his emphasis on constant measuring and monitoring of key statistics such as cyclists’ power output, and developing training interventions which target any observed weaknesses, however minor.

They implemented a number of improvements. By experimenting in a wind tunnel, he searched for small improvements to aerodynamics. By analysing the mechanics area in the team truck, he discovered that dust was accumulating on the floor, undermining bike maintenance, so they painted the floor white, in order to spot any impurities. He hired a surgeon to teach our athletes about proper hand-washing so as to avoid illnesses during competition – they also decided not to shake any hands during the Olympics.

What we do at the Vélodrome is all about winning or losing. We just spend our time thinking about how to go faster. If a rider isn’t going well, how do we sort it out? That is what occupies our lives.

Brailsford revolutionised the approach to team building into an analytical approach based on a series of hypotheses to determine the trajectory of a professional cyclist’s career potential. He identified four stages in the level of performance, two stages in each of Professional and World Tour categories. The other dimension of performance was rider age, in five-year milestones at 20 to 35.

Brailsford plotted the trajectory of a rider’s career, peaking around aged 29, and a relative ranking based on dimensions and attributes of overall performance. There are different stages, as riders go from phase to phase. It aims to stimulate the asking of a series of questions: what does it mean in terms of potential, the coaching and support needed and performance potential?

What was the process for identifying these opportunities? Brailsford had three pillars to his approach, which he called the podium principles. The first one was strategy. The second was human performance with a focus on behavioural psychology and how to create an environment for optimum performance. The third principle was continuous improvement. Brailsford’s focus was clear: You have to identify the critical success factors and ensure they are in place, and then focus improvements around them.

Aligned to the analytics of team selection, ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ is Brailsford’s core performance philosophy. It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in every single thing you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards. Forget about perfection; focus on progression, and compound the improvements.

Naturally, all these tiny gains can add up to large gain – potentially race-winning, or record-winning, gains. It’s not just a sound bite but rather an approach that underpinned Brailsford’s phenomenal success in track cycling, and which he then applied to road cycling. So what does the philosophy of marginal gains look like exactly? To be the very best they can be so that they perform when it matters.

So how do we take Brailsford’s approach for creating a world class cycling team into a development framework for the people and teams in your business? David Denyer, Professor
of Organisational Change and Director of Research at Cranfield University identified fifteen key steps from Brailsford’s philosophy to achieve peak performance, summarised as follows:

  1. Ensure clarity Brailsford attributes success to understanding what you are trying to win, being clear about the purpose, setting
an outcome that everyone buys into and ensuring absolute clarity concerning roles, responsibilities, structure and tactics.
  2. Create a ‘Podium Programme’ British Cycling aimed for medals, nothing less. Team Sky was equally bold – to win the Tour with a clean (drug-free) British rider within five years. The focus was on clear statements of success.
  3. Plan backwards Brailsford followed five key steps (i) prioritise and decide what you want to win because you can’t win everything (ii) figure out what it will take to
win (iii) work back from what you want to win to where you are today (iv) create a plan to close the gap (v) execute.
  4. Focus on process To ensure a win at the Beijing Olympics, it was calculated that an improvement
in time from over four minutes to under three minutes 55 seconds was needed. The resulting ‘3-55 programme’ for the team was summarised in a video. In Beijing, the team executed 3-55 (which had become the norm in training) and won gold.
  5. Get back to basics Tim Kerrison, Head of Performance Support argued for simplification saying the rider who generates the most power, for the longest period of time, while weighing as little as possible, and slipping efficiently through the air, usually wins the race. To win the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins focused on altitude training, weight control and power output.
  6. Practice winning The top riders in Team Sky raced fewer days than their rivals and structured seasons to accommodate mid-season ‘training blocks’ in warm climates overseas. In 2012, purists argued that Wiggins had peaked too early in winning three week-long stage races prior to the Tour. Yet this was all part of the tactics. In those races the team trained to win by defending a lead.
  7. Aggregate Marginal Gains Focus on improving components that can significantly affect overall performance by just 1%. Examples included taking riders’ own mattresses and pillows to prevent neck and back problems when staying in hotels, and even training the team on how to wash their hands correctly to reduce the chance of infections.
  8. Maximise the latest technologies British Cycling had a small team known as the ‘secret squirrel club’ that was charged with finding technological innovations
to boost rider performance. The team would search for ways to
get marginal gains from using technological advances across sport, science, industry and the military. For example, riders benefited from electrically heated ‘hot pants’ as leg warmers that were inspired by Formula One’s tyre warmers.
  9. Conduct the orchestra This
is how Brailsford describes his approach to strategic leadership. He commented I don’t coach the riders directly. I coach a team of people, including coaches to coach the riders. Brailsford maintains that the most important members of the team are the riders, not the coaches or the management – We talked about taking the crown off the head of the coach and putting it on the head of the rider. First and foremost, I work for the riders.
  10. Support the support Team Sky was the first professional team that offered dedicated one-to-one coaching to all its riders, deciding that the split of investment in riders versus support should be 80/20 rather than usual 90/10 split in pro cycling. You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one was Brailsford’s rationale.
  11. Charter a team The British Cycling Team set its own team rules which included: respect
one another, watch each other’s backs, be honest with one another, respect team equipment and be on time. They also had the following motivational motto on team clothing and printed on every bike: This is the line. The line between winning and losing. Between failure and success. Between good and great. Between dreaming and believing. Between convention and innovation. Between head and heart.
It is a fine line.
It challenges everything we do.
And we ride it every day.
  12. Build a strong CORE This was Brailsford’s acronym to explain how success would be achieved: Commitment + Ownership + Responsibility = Excellence. This meant working only with people who have an intrinsic
drive towards achieving a goal (commitment), people who take ownership of their training and development and responsibility for their performance.
  13. Control your inner chimp Brailsford claims that the best appointment I’ve ever made was Steve Peters, a psychiatrist from Rampton high-security hospital. Peters worked with riders to pre-empt or control their ‘chimp’ – the emotional and irrational part of the brain, which has the potential to inhibit performance.
  14. Manage the ‘triangle of change’ To achieve change people must be a) committed to being
better b) psychologically minded (think that they can change) c) suffering enough to engage with change. If the first two are in place, Brailsford argues, it is possible to achieve change by either increasing consequence or reward.
  15. Stick to your principles Whilst some professional teams abandoned their tough drug policies for ‘truth and reconciliation’ following the Lance Armstrong scandal, Brailsford reinforced zero tolerance. Four senior members of staff left Team Sky having confessed to past involvement in doping. We prefer to compromise our performance rather than change our policy, says Brailsford.

So whilst much of the philosophy and approach is still held confidentially by Brailsford, you can distil his thinking into application for a business context to take individual and team performance to the next level:

  • Have you identified what the next level of success looks like for each individual and the collective team in your business?
  • How often do you sit with your team and review how you’re performing together – examining what’s working and not working? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.
  • Have you identified with your team what the marginal gains are for the way you perform individually, and together?
  • How often do you solicit feedback about your leadership performance from your team – what’s working or not working about how you perform?
  • Do you see your role as leader to direct or to support your team? Are you asking and listening or focussing too much on telling?

Perhaps the most powerful benefit of the principle of marginal gains is that it creates a contagious enthusiasm. Everyone starts looking for ways to improve. There’s something inherently rewarding about identifying marginal gains – Brailsford likened the bonhomie is similar to a scavenger hunt. People want to identify opportunities and share them with the group.  Our team became a very positive place to be.

One caveat is that the whole marginal gains approach doesn’t work if only half the team buy in. In that case, the search for small improvements will cause resentment. If everyone is committed, it removes the fear of being singled out. There’s mutual accountability, which is the basis of great teamwork.

Disciplined and rigorous process thinking, continuous improvement and a people centred philosophy. The aggregation of marginal gains Brailsford achieved brought together a wide range of incremental improvements, and had the discipline to implement and make them count. If it worked for Team GB and Team Sky cycling teams, what could it do for you to identify the marginal gains for you and your team?


MasterChef: lessons about comfort zones & marginal gains

It’s the final week of MasterChef 2015. Over the past six weeks, from the 40 hopefuls taking part in the heats, just five talented amateur cooks have fought their way through to the last week of competition in a bid to win the trophy and become the champion.

The five travel to Cambridge University’s Churchill College, where they have the task of cooking a five-course dinner in honour of Sir Winston Churchill. The dinner will be overseen by legendary chef Michael Caines, who has held two Michelin stars for over 15 years. Caines has devised a five-course menu for the dinner and the amateurs will be challenged to replicate his exquisite food for the occasion.

Can the MasterChef final five blow the guests away with some amazing food? It’s high drama as they push themselves to the limit to impress judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace to keep alive their dream of winning MasterChef 2015.

We’ve seen numbers dwindle as the strongest cooks conquered fierce challenges. The chefs-in-training have experienced exciting highs and devastating lows as their show-stopping dishes and original creations met praise and scrutiny from celebrities, food critics and winners from the past.

From ‘choice’ and ‘palate’ tests to a ‘calling card dish’ and the ‘reinvention test’, the strictly timed challenges have pushed the cooks to the limits of their abilities. All of these heats have been building up to the big final, where just one chef will overcome the competition to be crowned champion.

There’s no telling who can cook themselves to victory. For me, to win the competition you have to be resilient and brave, I don’t think the cooks who are best at the start win, it’s the ones who learn the quickest and improve. It’s all about learning from and absorbing the experience.

I’ve watched Masterchef right through this series, there’s something inspirational about seeing the level of contestants’ effort and passion laid bare and vulnerable.  Each contestant struggles with the constant presence of the challenge to their ability and their confidence, triggering anxiety. Hands shake uncontrollably as they struggle to place the final drizzle of gravy on the plate.

Last week’s highlights included Gregg saying Two tarts and an ice-cream as if it were the title of a new release by One Direction. An overriding memory came from the celebrity series a few years back with Janet Street Porter banging on about her love of cooking roadkill. That and India Fisher’s hushed narrative and voice over giving me goose pimples…for the soft ‘g’ in the pronunciation of tagliatelle.

From 8am till midnight, day in and day out, they’re ordered about by egotistical chefs in Michelin-starred kitchens while cooking complicated dishes against the clock and all this while being constantly nagged by the judges bellowing YOU ONLY HAVE FIVE MINUTES LEFT.

I’ve long been a passionate cook and constantly developing my culinary craftsmanship. As far as I’m concerned, food is about taste, texture and simplicity, cooking is not an opportunity to make a climbing frame out of vegetables or building blocks out of meat. My food is chunky and unpretentious, a bit like me!

I’m an avid reader of cookbooks for inspiration. Giorgio Locatelli’s big Italian book is a great read, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s veg book has a load of good ideas and Rosemary Shrager’s recipes are simple and fool proof, so ideal for me. Heston Blumenthal is just too posh and too fussy for me. I spend more time trying to use the letters of his name as an anagram and spell something rude. That lush nobleman is my best effort.

I love basic and traditional English food. My ‘signature dish’ is a Desperate Dan pie – braised steak with morel mushrooms and pink shallots, in rich chestnut-flavoured gravy, with a puff pastry topping, served with sprouts pan-fried with chestnuts and garlic, and carrots braised in Manuka honey. Gregg and John would love my dish, although I suspect there would be some whingeing about my presentation as I’m all about substance over style.

But back to Masterchef. Under pressure, the dignity of someone utterly wholeheartedly committed to his or her craft is incredible to watch. This is competitive cooking that is hard to imagine, and they produce unbelievable dishes. The effort really gets to me, by committing to their goal, they truly expose themselves.  By trying so hard, they leave no room for comfort should they fail.

How many of us commit ourselves to our business like this?  Very few I suspect. Most of us settle for a bit of effort but we seek to avoid at all costs any loss of dignity, the risk of appearing foolish, or being criticised.  We don’t put ourselves out there, exposed, vulnerable for all to see. They step out of their comfort zones in the glare of national television and bare their soul. And sometimes their sole.

As always when looking at something like this, I always try to find lessons we can take into our business:

Bosses come in all shapes and sizes and have different personalities Greg Wallace is kind, wants them to succeed but is firm and professional. John Torode is sarcastic and likes to watch people sweat, quick to anger, but has plenty of heart too. Occasionally, lessons come at you in a loud, angry voice, others supportive but still critical. You can focus on the anger or you can hear the lesson.

Keeping it simple can be the best option Sometimes the contestants try to take it too far, using a particular ingredient just to be different. Occasionally, it works, but it’s a risk and the competitor with the simple, well-prepared dish rarely goes home. Attention to detail and back to basics are good business principles.

Strategise before filling the pans The contestants are told the goal of the day and then have to think through each and every small activity from the ingredients they require, to the time allocated and how would they present. Little time is given but it has to be quick, effective decision making, goal driven. Having a clear strategy is key.

Have a Plan A and Plan B After strategy, to obtain the desired culinary result a good plan is needed. Kitchen malfunctions highlight the need for agility, to be able to respond quickly and have a contingency. Businesses operate in a dynamic environment and unplanned events of significant adverse impact occur. The ability to recognise these risks and be able to respond with a back-up plan is vital.

Stay cool when the heat is on What happens when the dish doesn’t turn out the way you wanted? Yes, you have a Plan B, but often Plan B is now under extreme pressures and there isn’t time to deliver fully. You have to stay clam and present what is completed with conviction even if failure is on the back of your mind, go with what you have.

Be goal-oriented and time-aware As the saying goes, If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. In each episode there is a challenge, with a clear goal, but a ridiculously short amount of time to complete it. The contestants are motivated to win, but it’s remarkable how much pressure the contestants put themselves under to achieve success.

Processes deliver productivity Cooking to a recipe is very much following a process with clear instructions. In business, ambiguity or inaccuracy in a process can lead to wildly varied quality and results. The importance of including detail and clarity in a process so that the same results can be delivered every single time is a key element to successful outcomes in business. The pressure of Masterchef is a perfect example of how to get things done when the heat is on.

Be clear about the big picture – the end product Contestants are shown the dish they are required to prepare, and they visualise the process and the end product.  The same applies to business outcomes we want to achieve.  We need to use our imagination, to visualise our goal, to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it and keep it in our heads at all times through the ‘cooking’ process.

Leave yourself enough time to test the final product During the presentation of each dish the contestants are often asked Have you tasted it? and often their response is No. Sometimes such trust in their own ability pays off, but sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s a big risk to take in business.  Leave yourself enough time to not only put the final product together (plate it up) and make sure it works, but to also test it with some of your colleagues and selected clients to see if it can be improved.

Masterchef is a good example of getting out of your comfort zone. It’s important to push the boundaries, and when you do, it often feels like a big deal. But what is the ‘comfort zone’ exactly? Why is it that we tend to get comfortable with the familiar routines? Simply, your comfort zone is a behavioural space where your activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimise stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security.

The idea of the comfort zone goes back to an experiment in psychology in 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximize performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety, a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called Optimal Anxiety, and it’s just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply.

The idea of Optimal Anxiety is familiar to the Masterchef competitors and anyone who’s pushed themselves to get to the next level to accomplish something. We all know that when you really challenge yourself, you can turn up amazing results. However, pushing too hard can actually cause a negative result, and reinforce the idea that challenging yourself is a bad idea. It’s our natural tendency to return to an anxiety neutral, comfortable state.

Even so, your comfort zone is neither a good or bad thing. It’s a natural state that most people trend towards. But don’t demonise your comfort zone as something holding you back, we all need that headspace, but Optimal Anxiety is that place where your mental productivity and performance reach their peak.

Whether you love or loathe the programme, the tension and the occasional temperamental chaffing of the competitors, there are great personal and business lessons to be gleaned from cooking under pressure in terms of pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone, as shown by the amateur chefs. For example:

  • Be open to learning
  • Remove the boundaries and barriers
  • Curiosity
  • Do it in small steps
  • Focus on the positive past to envision a positive future
  • Accept that it will be uncomfortable

Breakout and become comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown, push and stretch yourself and you’ll configure new perspectives by taking risks and making yourself a little scared. I don’t want to be a ballroom dancer, but I’ll push myself time and again to learn and experience new things. Optimal Anxiety is the only place to be.

A second thought for me from the kitchen recalls the thinking of Dave Brailsford, once Performance Director of British Cycling and latterly head of Team Sky, who was instrumental in leading a period of unrivalled success for competitive team and individual cycling in Great Britain. His performance philosophy was based upon ‘marginal gains’ – the idea that if you break down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.

As well as looking at traditional components of success such as physical fitness and tactics, Brailsford’s approach focused on a holistic strategy, embracing technological developments and athlete psychology. He is noted for his emphasis on constant measuring and monitoring of key statistics and developing training interventions, which target any observed weaknesses, however minor.

Brailsford is a keen student of management technique and attributed some of success to Moneyball, a book written by Michael Lewis. Moneyball is about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team in US Major League Baseball. Beane recognised that the way baseball players were assessed was flawed, based on traditional, outdated indicators.

Beane’s focus was analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, which informed Brailsford’s own analytical approach to individual performance. What we do at the Velodrome is all about winning or losing. We just spend our time thinking about how to go faster. If a rider isn’t going well, how do we sort it out? That is what occupies our lives.

Brailsford took Beane’s viewpoint and revolutionised an analytical performance system based on a series of hypotheses to determine the trajectory of a professional cyclist’s potential and ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ – It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in every single thing you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards.

Naturally, all these tiny gains can add up to large gain – potentially race-winning, or record-winning, gains. It’s not just a soundbite but rather an approach that has underpinned Brailsford’s phenomenal success in both track and road cycling. The philosophy of marginal gains is simple: To be the very best they can be so that they perform when it matters.

So, what can you distil from competitive cooking, the concept of the comfort zone and the philosophy of marginal gains into application for a business context to take your performance to the next level?

  • Have you identified what the next level of success looks like for yourself?
  • How often do you review how you’re performing, examining what’s working and not working? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.
  • When is the next opportunity to learn some new skills?
  • When do you envisage you’ll next get out of your comfort zone to embrace a challenge?
  • Have you identified what the marginal gains are for the way you perform?

As Greg says: Cooking doesn’t get any harder than this. Business life does occasionally throw eggs at us. We have to be ready with our oil, salt and pepper, and the world is your omelette. Mary Anne Radmacher’s words sum up this attitude: Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.