Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Ordinary Things

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As we seek to understand extraordinary events we would be well served by examining what has become ordinary.

Ordinary things provide comfort, for as they become familiar parts of our lives they can help us achieve a sense of consistency, a sense of control, a sense of predictability. We are creatures of habit, even if for some the habit is to never do the same thing twice. We seek out similar experiences to ones we have had in the past. Some seek the rush of adrenaline from the thrill of trying new things and others the comfort of unchanging routine. For many the morning cup of coffee, tea or juice served just so, creates a sense of being on track, of not having to deal with something out of the ordinary first thing in the morning. We settle into our routines. But we can’t afford to become complacent about our routines.  Complacency can lead to obsolescence, to overlooking risk, to not seeing the world as it truly is right before your eyes.

Sometimes when you look at the people on the edges of society, people who operate beyond the limits of what most of us would consider ordinary behavior, the edge itself becomes a magnifying glass, providing insights that we might normally overlook. For instance, the swindler who is caught, on one of those exposé TV shows, in a complex web of lies while trying to scam people, sees the behavior as acceptable because “everyone lies”. To the scam artist it has become ordinary to cheat, to lie, and to steal. It has become part of the normal way of conducting oneself.  To change someone’s behavior you must change what is accepted as “ordinary”.

The work environment is no different, and what we consider to be ordinary becomes part of the normal course of events, the way we conduct ourselves and our business. For a manager, as an example, an ordinary thing may involve shaving that budget just a few percent each year. It becomes normal to cut on an annual basis in an attempt to become more efficient and to increase bottom-line performance. And while each cut by itself may seem minimal, over the course of time they may add up to an extraordinary draconian situation. It would not surprise me at all if the managers responsible for the Deep Water Horizon drilling platform felt those pressures to cut just a little bit here and there to increase efficiency, to bring that well in on-time and under budget. Cutting simply becomes part of the normal operating routine, it becomes ordinary. Yet not pushing one’s performance can lead to complacency and the risk of a competitor coming along and making you and your organization obsolete. Leveling the playing field by putting into place minimum standards of “ordinary” is necessary to break that cycle.

But there is a balance that must be struck. That balance is between maximizing current performance (operating most efficiently) while at the same time creating future potential for success (operating in a fashion that leads to other and new opportunity). If the balance swings too far one way or the other the organization and all of it constituencies are at risk. An organization that monitors itself with respect to that balance, adjusting and correcting imbalances that occur can achieve higher levels of performance.

Ordinary things are found in and can help interpret extraordinary circumstances. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated an inventory was conducted of the contents of his pockets. You might wonder what the 16th president of the United States, the gifted leader who gave us the Gettysburg address, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, and the continuance of the United States itself, had in his pockets at the time of his death. What things would this man, whose achievements are viewed as extraordinary carry around on his person? The inventory produced two pairs of spectacles and a lens polisher, a pocketknife, a watch fob, a linen handkerchief, and a brown leather wallet containing a five-dollar Confederate note (a souvenir from the recently visited and captured Confederate capital) and nine newspaper clippings. He was carrying ordinary things expecting nothing more than a pleasant evening at the theater.

On the other hand, a very ordinary 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee with 133,000 miles on it just sold for $26,437.50, a sum far greater than book value. This ordinary vehicle commands such a price because it was once the personal car of the 44th president of the United States, Barak Obama. It is an ordinary car to which an extraordinary value is ascribed due to its provenance and the person who paid that amount certainly expects the car to at a minimum hold its value if not to increase in value substantially. I have to add here that I too drive a 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee with only 89,000 miles on it, with good rubber, and I would accept somewhat less than $26,000 for it.

Listening to music, a walk in the park, a ride on the train, cutting the grass, taking the family out for dinner, are all examples of what some would say are quite ordinary behavior. But what we define as ordinary not only changes over time but is affected by changing standards, by geography, by economic conditions, by culture and status among other factors. My child is lucky enough to get vaccinated against a whole host of childhood diseases, vaccinations that other children in other parts of the world will forego. What is ordinary for her would be extraordinary for others. Some things that you might view as extraordinary, if it is happening to you, say removal of a gall bladder, or the repair of a hernia, are quite ordinary for the surgeon who performs similar operations almost daily. Sometimes it is very difficult to see how an extraordinary event for yourself, like a graduation, a promotion, a marriage, the birth of a child, a diagnosis of cancer, can be quite ordinary for observers to that event from a more dispassionate vantage point.

And if you’ll indulge me, if we take it to a higher plane, while we may all be ordinary, each and every one of us nothing more than flesh and blood, we are all extraordinary in that we are all, each and every one of us, made up of star stuff. Each and every atom in our bodies first came into being in the heart of a star and was released from that heart upon the death of the star in an explosive nova. The early universe you see contained only lighter elements such as helium and hydrogen. Other heavier elements of which we consist (e.g. carbon, oxygen, iron) began to be synthesized only after the first generation of stars coalesced and ignited the fusion process at their cores. That stellar fusing process created the very atoms of our being. When those first generation stars exploded the heavier elements were released, and made available for the earth to form and for life itself to come into being. While we at times may feel quite ordinary, our origins are clearly extraordinary.

Extraordinary events are oftentimes surrounded and caused by what has become standard or ordinary in terms of how people behave. And different people have differing definitions of what is ordinary. Finding out what that definition consists of can lead to insights into their behavior and consequent events. In some corners, corruption and bribery have become ordinary, in other corners the desire to squeeze out a bit more profit drives what is accepted as ordinary behavior, and in other corners it is standard for people to go way above and beyond what others would consider ordinary to be in service of those who have less than what they do. We do have the ability to change the definition of ordinary, each and every one of us. We do it all the time. All we have to do is something extraordinary and then make it routine.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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