Making the Impossible Do’able

The practical approach to steep objectives

Growing up in the 90’s in the Adelaide Hills the rest of the world felt a long way away. New discoveries, geniuses, and game-changing breakthroughs seemed to always happen in exotic places a long way away. Nothing of gravity seemed to come from anywhere near me. Layer with this the apathy that came with being a teenager during the Grunge movement and the result was an attitude of impossible. When I grew up and travelled around the world, I quickly realised that people everywhere were normal people like us. They were not extra special, more talented, or cleverer.

It was an eye opener – I have the right to do brilliant things as much as anyone from Geneva, New York, or Oslo.

Grunge – full of angst and apathy

She had no right 1

We have recently seen countless examples of people achieving the seemingly impossible. Since writing about Ash Barty’s amazing major win (Ash the quitter), she has gone to number one in the world! We all thought it was impossible that any Aussie would climb to the peak of the mountain. Our tennis system that was apparently devoid of talent, money, and unity – Ash made a mockery of this assumption.

Ash wins the Birmingham Classic to become the World’s Number 1 Female Tennis Player

She had no right 2

Hannah Green, ranked 114th in the world, rolled up to Hazeltine (Minnesota USA), for the PGA Championship Major Tournament. Green went wire-to-wire (led all the way through the tournament) to win one of the toughest tournaments in the year. Green had no right to win in the minds of the “experts”. But she did. Game changing.

Sitting outside the top 100 ranked players, Hannah Green had no right to win a major tournament

They had no right

Leicester City captain Wes Morgan and manager Claudio Ranieri lift the trophy as the team celebrate winning the Barclays Premier League

In 2016, Leicester City Football Club (soccer) did the un-do’able. They won the Premier League. In an era where only the richest clubs win, this little club won matches. And kept winning. And won until there were no games left. It will always go down as one of the biggest anomalies ever seen in world sport. They were 5000-1 odds (NBC, In a league of their own). I am not a betting man, but I know that these are some of the longest odds in a comparable situation.

Still hard to believe. They didn’t have the resources, the squad, or the pedigree. But they did it. They achieved the impossible.
Still hard to believe. They didn’t have the resources, the squad, or the pedigree. But they did it. They achieved the impossible.

I could write for pages about such stories. And I draw on sport, because it is such a transparent workplace. Everything the leaders, players, and communities do is on show. We get great coverage and insights into what people are doing and how they do it. I feel that sporting stories relate directly to our own lives and workplaces where clear learnings we can be practically used.

This week, I shared an article by Francesco Gino on LinkedIn, written for Harvard Business Review (why curiosity matters). I am a big fan of Gino’s work on Rule Breaking. One statistic from Gino’s HBR article smacked me in the face:

70% of people she surveyed were scared to ask more questions in their workplace.

This is an alarmingly high number, but one I can understand. I am seen as an extravert with a big mouth, but I can often find myself afraid of asking questions from fear of looking dumb, even within a trusted environment of people. So, if we are afraid of asking questions, then it is no wonder that when faced with steep objectives we immediately feel they are unobtainable. How dare we question our assumptions that it is too hard?

Business Battle Lines have been drawn. Higher Up’s have laid out their strategies and they are dealing out the numbers they want to see achieved. Clients and competitors have done the same. If you are saying to yourself “that’s impossible”, then you are not alone (see my previous article on this; Tell em their dreaming). It is a natural response. But, you are also wrong. It is incorrect that ‘unrealistic targets’ are not achievable. They are. It just takes asking a few extra questions.

Starting with the mindset that your objectives are achievable is the first step.

Secondly, throw out the rule book. We discuss Audacity as one of the critical Behaviours That Matter in my programs. A part of this is separating ourselves from what we did. The controversial author, Jordan Peterson writes “the past is dead” in his book The 12 Rules of Life. Peterson is referring to the fact that what has happened cannot be changed as opposed to the future, which is still completely malleable.

The third step is implementation. What are the habitual behaviours you can set in motion now? The first one I would suggest is to set yourself to ask more questions. Inspired by Gino’s work, we can take that extra moment to discuss, question, and go deeper into what is happening, why it is happening, and how can it happen better?

Along with remembering the feats of Barty, Green, and Leicester City we can set ourselves up to not only achieve the impossible but set ourselves up to establish a new benchmark that could not have been imagined.

The 3 questions to be answered

Clarity and acceleration are on the other side

Competing priorities are a part of our lives. Time pressure from “other’s emergencies” seems to be a constant. Complexity of our working lives is increasing and does not look like stopping.

These are all statements that came from my last group discussion with a brand’s business leaders. All are sobering statements by themselves, and down right confronting as a trio.

So how can we tackle this? What are the practical ways to bring calm and control back into our workflows?

Matt Church, the Australian Motivational Speaker, speaks of “activity before clarity”. The message being to just go and do a lot of work and through lots of discussions, marketing, selling, and delivering, we will gain more and more clarity about our product, the market’s needs, and our value proposition. This makes sense to me. When I first started in field sales for Aveda in the UK as an Account Manager, I was told to make at least 10 client approaches a week to gain new business. This was not always easy, and at the time it was just as much about hitting the weekly KPI in my report as it was about winning business (we’ve all been there, right!?!)

But what happened was I became a lot clearer about my brand’s value, what problems we solved, where we had competitive advantage, and what I was looking for (ie. The type of client, the size of client, the state of a client, and the attitude of a client). Before I knew it, I was hitting the right prospects at the right time and exceeding targets without needing to do anywhere near 10 approaches a week. My weekly report didn’t have the required 10 filled in, but the boss didn’t seem to mind.

What I didn’t realise was that I was going through a long and painful process to answer three questions I didn’t even realise needed answering:

1.       What am I trying to achieve?

If there is one question that smashes professionals in the face and sits them on their back side, it is this. A succinct answer that feels right is hard to nail. It’s like your own mini Mission or Vision Statement. So many organisations have meaningless Mission Statements and vague Vision Statements, so it’s not hard to see why most of us as individuals can’t answer what seems to be such a simple answer. By the way, if your answer this question is “earn $X”, or “sell X units”, you are not even trying…

2.       Why am I doing what I am doing?

 As an Account Manager I used to drive for hours to client’s I knew would waste my time. Yet, I would waste several hours driving and meeting with them. Why? Because I was following the rules I had set up in my mind that didn’t exist. Because I didn’t realise how precious my time was. Because, I wasn’t engaged in my role. Sometimes there is politics involved, or circumstance, or we are being nice. By asking why I am doing the cycles of work I am doing, a lot of unproductive nonsense can be cut out.

3.       What do I need to do next?

The only thing we can do is the next thing. It may be to stop doing something that is not serving us. In my case, I needed to stop driving to client’s hours away that were not going to grow my business. Gary Vanderchuk talks about not wasting time as one of his key sales tactics. “When I know they don’t want to buy from me, I’ll cut the meeting short”, he says. That is one of his key actions that works for him. Consciously asking, ‘what needs to be done next?’ cuts through the aimlessness that causes ineffectual and wasteful workflows.

By asking these questions often, daily if needed, there is a powerful habit that forms to create clarity, purpose, and ongoing rhythm in our workflows.

When to reflect

A story of quitting on the way to the top

Ipswich, Queensland – 1996. Ashleigh Barty is born to an indigenous dad and a mother with English descendancy. Humble beginnings served Ash well, and her attitude was old school right from the start. She opted for tennis instead of netball as a child because, in her words “netball is a girls sport”. Ash rapidly became a gun tennis player winning the Wimbledon Juniors title at age 15.

Next step – the Pro’s. Ash would spend the next two years earning every start to every tournament she played in. Eventually Ash would experience some success in the doubles game more than singles. Ranked outside the top 200 in the world, Ash then made a decision… she quit.

“it was too much too quickly for me as I’ve been travelling from quite a young age… I wanted to experience life as a normal teenaged girl and have some normal experiences.”

Ash had a chat to some cricket administrators about trialling for a new WBBL (Womens Big Bash League) concept. Unlike others that tried to cross over from different sports, Ash had the goods and was signed up for the Brisbane Heat’s inaugural season.

Playing Twenty20 cricket fro Brisbane - taking a break

After two years hiatus, Ash decided to return to tennis in 2016. Starting from the bottom again, she would compete well straight away. Ash was now ready to take on the challenge of the Pro Tour. In 2017, The Malaysian Open becomes her first Top Tier (WTA) Singles Title, followed by a string of successes in the doubles game.

In a world of big personalities and brands like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, Ash is unnoticeable. Almost invisible on the world stage. In Australia, the antics of Nick Kyrios get 100 times more column space in the papers than Ash. But like a skilled ninja she operates in the shadows slowly but surely working her way up the world rankings.

As Ernest Hemmingway once said, “everything in life happens gradually, and then suddenly”.

Boom – Ash Barty is the 2019 French Open Singles Champion. Ash Barty is the world ranked number two player in the world. Aged 23 years old. But she is not just a Major Winner. She is a force to be reckoned with. Her game is tight. She is strong, skillful, and strategic.

What a story.

The girl has come a long way

But, for me, this is a story of quitting. Ash taught us that we are all allowed to quit, but we can never give up on our ultimate goal. Ash never stopped being a professional tennis player, she just took some time out from playing tennis.

Angela Duckworth writes about the power of ‘never giving up’ in her book Grit.

ne of the building blocks of grit, or Tenacity as I put it, is the practice of committing to something hard. Duckworth’s rules are:

  1. You need to have one hard thing to practice regularly.
  2. You can quit, but only at a natural stopping point that is designated at the start.
  3. You choose your own.

Thank you Ashleigh Barty for teaching us about the power of quitting while never giving up.   

This article first appeared on https://www.paulfarina.com.au