EXCELLENCE: The Subtle Art of Reframing Your Elephant

If Tom Peters had written Anna Karenina, he would have started the novel with the words:

“All struggling companies are alike; each successful organization excels in its own way.”

Achieving Excellence means different things to different companies, and therefore their strategies may vary. Except that in many cases, they don’t. Driven by a uniquely American desire to apply the right tool that will get you where you want to see yourself – or rather to be seen – without breaking a sweat, most companies implement the same strategy. Here are the common basic elements of this strategy.

Step 1: Spot the Elephant

Admit, with ostentatious humility, that there are some areas for improvement. This is a great first step that has several undeniable benefits:

  • It sounds professional.
  • It gives enough material for several rowdy meetings and a slew of victorious reports
  • At the same time, the discovered “areas for improvement” will probably be identical to what was discovered several years ago, so the required effort will be minimal.

Now that you have admitted that there is an Elephant in the room – and of course, everybody sees multiple old elephants grazing everywhere – select the most obvious one and declare a Crusade, a Crusade for Excellence.

You now have every right to go completely offline for a week – to work at home on the Master Plan.

Step 2: Rename the Elephant

Mild and agreeable as it may sound, this Master Plan to Excellence has one significant risk: even though your last Quest for Excellence prompted quite a few good people to leave the company, there are still alive employees who remember previous monumental organizational failures and may be inconsiderately skeptical about your idea of Excellence. This problem is easily bypassed by renaming the Elephant. That is why your Quest for Excellence is now a Crusade.

Step 3: Reframe the Elephant

Reframing is the scientific foundation of this winning methodology. Read this step attentively.

Even though you carefully rename the Elephants (there are certainly several lurking around the organization), you are far from success yet. There must be a good reason why you could not defeat them last time (and the time before that), so you may need a totally new strategy designed from scratch. The most popular choice remains inviting a strategic consultant and paying him a lot (and I mean a lot!) of money, somberly referring to the exorbitant price tag as your investment in Excellence.

The benefits of hiring an external consultant are well-known to seasoned leaders, and this strategy is known to be bulletproof. But if this option is not feasible for you if, for example, the organization is so deep in real elephant excrement that there’s no budget to hire even a zookeeper to clean the elephant enclosure; or you had personally hired a strategic consultant five years ago and have not yet moved on to another role in the company. If that’s your case, you will have to do the job yourself, using well-known management best practices.

In particular, you should know the old adage: if you can’t beat them, join them! If the Elephant in the room is the one that you have been chasing away for the last decade or so, now is the right time to join him. Or rather, instead of chasing the elephant out, declare with due pathos that “this Elephant is part of our DNA” – which is probably true – and invite the Elephant into the boardroom!

There’s nothing wrong with this decision. In management and psychotherapy, this is called reframing. Reframing can help employees change the way they interpret or react to the situation at work, which may lead to more positive outcomes by causing domino reframings throughout the organization. The domino effect can help managers and individual contributors further down the food chain to escape negative thoughts, reduce stress, and continue their Crusade for Excellence without undue disturbance.

How to Achieve Excellence:

Here’s a practical guide that will help you achieve Excellence within a few months.

1. Think big. Talk bigger.

Never set out to simply improve performance. It’s too low a standard. Set yourself up for Excellence. Productivity is for the feeble-minded losers. This is actually your first instance of deploying Reframing. As you should intuitively understand by now, the top-level Elephant, Achieving Excellence, is in itself a reframed low organizational performance caused by a disgruntled workforce and outdated processes, and reinforced by the unions.

2. Create an Excellence Department.

This is not a pilot department that will apply innovative thinking – and achieve excellent performance that can be then scaled up to the entire organization. That’s not big enough. Create a fully staffed department, with a hefty headcount (good things require investment!) that will be talking about excellence as their job role, call additional meetings, spend budgets on brainstorming off-sites and certify new waves of excellent specialists. Note: prior MLM experience is required but not essential.

3. Document Excellence.

Like in p.2 above, this is not about learning to create exemplary documents. Those are usually too short and clear and require a lot of brain effort – but will not look impressive to the Senior Leadership Team. Instead, create a slew of bewildering PowerPoint slides. To help you along the way, here’s another best practice: use the famous 10/20/30 Rule – but invert it! The upgraded 30/20/10. rule is simple: Make sure that your presentation consists of at least 30 slides, each slide has 20 lines or more and contains the 10-point font. This rule guarantees that this presentation may take forever to deliver (or even to read), This opens the door to p.4.

(For a serious reader: If you want to refine your presentation skills, this article may help you.)

4. Meet More

This is a simple and catchy tagline, destined for Excellence. But there’s more to it. Embrace and enforce this approach:

  • Never make a phone call if you can book a meeting: this keeps your Outlook fully booked and demonstrates your organic empathy to colleagues who may be startled by the ringtone.
  • Invite as many participants as possible, the more, the merrier; plus, you help your colleagues fill in their Outlook calendar.
  • When you have your Outlook fully booked for a few weeks to come (setting more recurring meetings helps), you have a very good bragging topic – and a good reason to have no time to prepare agendas and minutes – or read your emails at all.

(For a serious reader: If you want more done with less time spent in meetings, this article may help you.)

5. Email Excellence

If you are on track with pp 1-4 above, you may not need to read this – and won’t – because you will have no time to do anything else. Still, as Excellence means perfection, you need to bear in mind these Email best practices that will help you make your progress toward Excellence sustainable:

  • Never spend time on the “subject” line; just open any email from the person you want to write to and hit “reply.”
  • Better still, use “reply all”: you will keep more people at least momentarily busy.
  • Always start your email with the assurance that you have no doubt about the person’s health.
  • You may skip the previous item if you reply to an email that contains a photo or video with cute animals; then you reply (to all!) with “thanks for sharing.”

These simple best practices virtually guarantee that people will instantly believe you when you say that you “had no time yet to reply.” Indeed, after a few tries, they won’t even ask. (Email Excellence: check!)

(For a serious reader: If you need help fighting your inbox, this article may help you.)

6. Domino Reframing

Having hedged your precious time, you can now give more attention to actually managing your team. Here are a few crucial pointers, rooted entirely in Reframing methodology:

  • Best employees leaving the team: “ensuring culture fit.”
  • The team has too many useless people: “manifestation of your adherence to diversity and inclusion.”
  • Lack of overall competence, cultural alignment, or any clear culture altogether: “our most important value is team spirit.”

(For a serious reader: If you are serious about discovering your culture, this article may help you.)

The list can continue and will be different from organization to organization because each organization finds its “unique path to excellence.” I suggest you keep this list because when you get to your next Excellence Quest (or Crusade or Discovery), it will come in handy, again.

But if one day you finally find another job (improbable) or they lay you and the entire Excellence Department (more probable as this offers some excellent cost saving), you will admit that “finding your unique way to excellence” was yet another reframing or euphemism that allowed the leadership of the company to report progress and perhaps get to the next step in their careers – even it has a negative impact on the business. We’ll just reframe the impact to make it sound good.

This takes us back to the first words of the first sentence of the novel unwritten by Tom Peters almost exactly 100 years after Leo Tolstoy:

“All struggling companies are alike; … ”

Trying to “achieve Excellence” without acknowledging the critical role of “soft” factors in the knowledge economy and without first establishing a clear purpose and defined culture, results in uniformity among these companies in their misguided attempts to step up performance.

No organization can attain excellence by simply rallying the team to outperform the competition and increase shareholder value.

Truly excellent organizations achieve success by clearly defining their purpose, supported by shared values, and by helping people – employees, customers, suppliers, and perhaps even competitors – to do their best, in their own way.