The Path to Excellence: Lessons from the Landscaper

One of my favorite things to do during the summer is take walks in my neighborhood park. On occasion I will transform into a photojournalist on these treks, snapping pictures of landscapes or objects that grab my attention. That was the case this past June. Those in the Midwest will remember the month of June for the torrential rainstorms that seemed to occur six days a week. While taking in a rare dry and sunny June afternoon my walk came to a sudden stop.

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Looking down at the nearby grass I was stunned to see muddy tire tracks and standing water marking the scene of a recent mowing (project/disaster/adventure). Quality was clearly not a non-negotiable; completion was the order of the day for that landscaper. As a taxpayer who likely paid for this interesting mowing job I was upset. As I reflected about this result and the responsible party, several thoughts surfaced. I realized that we have all been there before.

Results like the one above should have been predictable.

There’s an inherent danger if our drive to achieve a specific outcome fails to consider important environmental circumstances. It’s possible the landscaper failed to notice critical details hiding in plain sight (i.e., standing water). It’s possible he failed to reflect when the mower began spinning its wheels. Perhaps the desire to finish the job crowded out his concern for workmanship.

This can happen to all of us if we aren’t careful.

In a park this lack of vision leaves behind a visible sign of indifference and poor planning. A cautionary tale if you will. In an organization the outcome can be more costly. What leads to poor, yet predictable results within an organization? One possible cause is resistance to change, or even worse indifference to results. Fear of the unknown or apathy can leave an organization stuck in the mud and spinning wheels.

Why didn’t the landscaper stop?

Often we fall into the trap of doing the same thing, trying the same failed strategy and yet expecting (or wishing for) different results. If other landscapers had been present surely they would have seen this was a bad idea from the start. So why didn’t someone stop the process, the landscaper or the project leader? That will remain a mystery, but one thing is certain, increasing your commitment to a failed strategy is never the answer. If our actions aren’t leading to progress we must have the courage to pause and change course. Sometimes this requires patience and the willingness to wait and monitor environmental conditions.

Completing a task should never be our primary driver. Excellence is a standard to be vigorously defended within an organization. If your culture is marked by “muddy tire tracks of mediocrity,” it likely points to an underlying problem needing attention on both the individual and collective level. What about you or your organization? What steps can you take to avoid unnecessary damage or move beyond mediocre results?