M is for Maintaining High Standards And Doing Marvellous Work When It Matters  

There are many ways to do fine work. One approach is to keep maintaining high standards and do marvellous work when it matters.

Great workers take these steps when dealing with challenging situations. They may be performing as athletes, crisis managers, surgeons, bomb disposal experts or doing other professional roles.

Different people use different ways to manage pressure or perform well at decisive moments. Here are two approaches.

The Maintaining Standards Approach

Some people aim to maintain high professional standards when tackling a challenge. They take the emotion out of the situation. They then focus on doing superb work to achieve success. 

The Mental Strength Approach

Some people aim to develop the mental strength required to deal with specific challenges. Different people use different techniques for taking this step. They then do superb work to achieve success.

The first approach is the simplest and involves focusing on the external work. The person aims to concentrate on the job in hand and deliver high standards.

They choose to stay calm and clear. They then pursue their chosen strategies to perform superb work.

The second approach is more complex and involves focusing on the internal work. The person explores ways to develop their mental strength.

They learn to manage their emotions rather than let their emotions manage them. They then apply these techniques to do superb work.

Some people combine both approaches. When in doubt, however, they focus on maintaining high standards.

They keep following good habits and perform superbly to do marvellous work. Some even produce a touch of magic that people remember forever.

Can you think of a person who has taken these steps in their own way? They may be somebody you have heard about or somebody you have known.

They may be a singer, athlete, artist, leader or may do other kinds of work. They may be a famous person or somebody who is relatively unknown but who does superb work.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a person who you believe maintained high standards and did marvellous work when it mattered.

Describe the specific things they did to take these steps.

Describe the specific things that happened as a result of them taking these steps.

Different people apply this approach in different ways. Let’s explore how they take these steps to do superb work.

High Standards

Great workers maintain good habits. They demonstrate elements of OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Discipline. They keep doing the right things in the right way. They also follow a rhythm that enables them to maintain high standards.

During the past decade I have seen this approach in action when being treated for prostate cancer by superb medical teams. They have always been caring, consistent and put the patient at the centre.

Such teams operate in a human way. At the same time, however, they pursue certain professional procedures. They keep following these principles to deliver high standards of care.

Great workers also have rituals for refocusing when blown off-course. They buy time to reflect, re-centre and rehearse what they plan to do next. A person may say something like the following.

Let me go back to delivering high standards.

The first thing I want to do is … The second thing I want to do is …

The specific thing I can do to get a quick success and then keep delivering high standards is …

The person then proceeds in a disciplined way but keeps using their antennae to do reality checks. They build on what is working and also find solutions to challenges. They then do their best to achieve the picture of success.

Great workers sometimes build on their natural self-discipline to develop good habits. Some learn by studying positive models. Some learn by working in places that have high professional standards.

Some organisations make sure that people know the required standards when they apply for a job. One organisation that I worked with communicated these requirements to applicants before they came for an interview. They also sent them real success stories that showed how the employees had translated the principles into action.

The interview process explored whether the person had both the attitude and ability required to deliver the goods. The candidate was invited:

To give specific examples of when they had followed some of the principles in their own life or work.

To give specific examples of how they would aim to follow some of these principles in their first month in the organisation.

This sounds tough, but it worked. The organisation saw recruitment and induction as two key components in continuing to develop the desired culture.

This theme was reinforced when people actually joined the organisation. During the induction programme they met with some of the key people – including the senior leaders – to focus on the professional standards.

Here is an example of the material that people were invited to explore during their first week in the organisation. This outlined the standards that people were expected to deliver to perform superb work.

Marvellous Work
When It Matters

Great workers aim to do superb work when it matters. Bearing this in mind, when does it really matter? One view is that it matters all the time. They believe that:

Every moment is an opportunity to do marvellous work.

Different people take this step in different ways. Some achieve it by going into a state of flow. The Olympic sprinter, for example, strives to get to a certain position in the race and then relaxes. Looking beyond the finishing line, they then flow, focus and finish.

Some people spend a lot of time planning ahead. They may do this by asking the following questions.

What is the piece of work I want to do? What are the real results I want to achieve? What is the picture of success? What are the actual words I would like to hear the key stakeholders – including myself – saying after I have done the work?

Looking back at my positive history, when have I tackled a similar challenge successfully? What did I do right then to achieve success? How can I follow similar principles – plus maybe add other skills – to tackle this challenge successfully?

How can I build on my strengths when doing the work? What are the key strategies I can follow to give myself the greatest chance of success? How can I translate these into a clear action plan? How can I get a quick success?

How can I maintain high professional standards? How can I keep improving? How can I, if appropriate, add that touch of magic? How can I do everything possible to do marvellous work?

Different people take these steps in different ways. Michael Murphy studied how people produce such magic. He described these experiences in the book he wrote with Rhea White called In The Zone: Transcendent experiences in sports.

The book goes beyond looking at sports and explores how people perform great work in other fields. He quotes Margherita Duncan writing about Isadora Duncan’s work in the following way.

When she danced the Blue Danube, her simple waltzing forward and back, like the oncoming and receding waves on the shore, had such ecstasy of rhythm that the audience became frenzied with the contagion of it, and could not contain themselves, but rose from their seats, cheering, applauding, laughing and crying.

Michael describes how peak performers enter another dimension and make time stand still. He quotes Herbert Saal, the ballet reporter, describing this quality in Mikhail Baryshnikov. Herbert wrote:

The most exquisitely chilling weapon in the arsenal of this complete dancer was his ballon, his ability to ascend in the air and stay there, defying gravity, especially in the double tour en l’air, in which the male dancer revolves two full times before landing.

The Stuttgart Ballet’s Richard Cragun can turn three times in a blur of motion. But Baryshnikov did it in slow motion. And it was unbelievable.  

He blasted off with the hesitation and majesty of a space ship. He turned – once, twice – and every thread on his costume was plainly visible as he soared high above the audience like an astronaut looking back at earth.  

Michael describes a similar phenomenon happening in team sports. He quotes Bill Russell, who played for the Boston Celtics, describing how the basketball team produced such magic in games.

Bill explains how the process would start with three or four of the team’s top players acting as a catalyst. He continues in the following way.

The feeling would spread to the other guys and we’d all levitate.

At that special level all sorts of odd things happened. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion.

I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. 

My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me.

These were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine.

Bill Russell did more than do great work on the court. He also focused on providing mentoring programmes for children. Here is a video that talks about his positive legacy.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of situation when you may be motivated to take some of these steps in your own way?

This could be in your personal or professional life. You may be encouraging a person, teaching a seminar, designing a house, playing a sport, leading a team or doing another activity.

What can you do then to maintain high standards? How can you do your best to do marvellous work when it matters?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to maintain high standards and do marvellous work when it matters.

Describe the specific things you can do then to do your best to take these steps. 

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.

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