Now from the outset, I’m not a mathematician, I’m a business coach. I work with individuals at the top of their organizations or those entrepreneurs building a new business from the ground up. I help them to find new and innovative ways to better deliver on their objectives. Whilst I have a business background in financial services this isn’t intended to be a PhD submission, redefining the meaning of life- it’s simply one of many viewpoints that questions whether we may all have the potential to find that extra 10%.
Conventional wisdom says that one of the nice things about effort is that it’s easy to measure in so much as the absolute maximum you can give is everything, and everything equals 100%. You can’t give more than your absolute maximum, which means you can’t give more than 100% unless you can make a carbon copy of yourself, in which case why settle for just 110%!
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, here’s a little well-known humorous mathematical formula to help us on our way.
If: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z are represented as: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26.
Then: H-A-R-D-W-O-R-K = 8+1+18+4+23+15+18+11 =98%,
K-N-O-W-L-E-D-G-E = 11+14+15+23+12+5+4+7+5 =96%
and A-T-T-I-T-U-D-E = 1+20+20+9+20+21+4+5 =100%
So even with hard work, knowledge and the right attitude, it’s impossible to give more than 100% right? It’s impossible because that’s what ‘percent’ means, it’s something we’re taught in primary school. But of course percentages greater than 100% exist. We are surrounded by them; business profits may soar to 800% on the previous year and it sure feels like my gas and electric bill have risen just as much!
The traditionalists who argue against the existence of 110% base their reasoning on the fact that effort is a finite amount- everything is all we have to give. Back in primary school when we were first taught percentages with Skittles, if we had ten Skittles on the table and had to share all ten with a classmate then we’d have given them 100% of our Skittles. You can’t give 110% because it doesn’t exist, if there was an eleventh Skittle, it would simply be number 11 of 11 and that would still be 100%.
But is this always the case? The reality of percentages is that it is dependant on the baseline you create – so if you are measuring growth in your company profits it’s benchmarked on the baseline of the previous years finances. Context is therefore key as you are talking about a percentage of something.
Economist Stephen Shmanske published a paper in October 2010 in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports entitled “Dynamic Effort, Sustainability, Myopia, and 110% Effort”, which analysed the performance of elite sports people and examined stats and benchmarks.
What Shmanske set about demonstrating is that the key to understanding the 110% phenomenon is about defining what counts as 100% effort. One probable benchmark is to define “100%” as the maximum effort that you can reasonably consistently sustain across working and private life. If you reflect on your own way of working it will be pretty clear to most of us that while we work incredibly hard, it’s very possible to give less than 100%. We all need down-time. After a long day in the office we may decide to take some time to relax. Workload doesn’t decrease, your email inbox is still full but for those few hours you have accepted that you do not need to give 100%. The opposite must also therefore be true. It must also be possible to give more, making an effort that can only be sustained inconsistently and for short periods of time.
And in fact, based on the numbers, professional sports people (and I would argue successful business leaders) deliver beyond 100% frequently, putting their effort in short bursts that they can keep up over a longer period.
The reality is that humans are not Skittles. Human effort, ability and innovation is not a known quantity. It is not fixed and set, rather, it evolves and changes as we change and as we seek out new ways of becoming better. The first time as a child we run the 100m on sports day, we can only ever seek to reach a certain time, that is 100% of what we can achieve at that age. With experience and training, the next time we attempt that same challenge we can go further, beyond the previous benchmark of 100% that we set. Each and every time we push the boundary of what we perceive to be the limit of our possibilities, a little bit more becomes possible and eventually we realize that the impossible was always possible but it was about the steps we needed to take in order to reach the benchmark and move beyond to a greater objective.
All of our capacities as human beings and business leaders work this way. Our bodies understand this- they evolve and adapt as we push the boundaries. If you go for a run every day, with time you will be able to run further and faster. More importantly, I would argue, so do our minds and our resourcefulness, our ability to be innovative in finding solutions. In today’s technology driven era, there are tools all around us to help us push further. Some things are finite such as the number of hours in the day, but more and more teams have spread their resources globally, meaning that no working day is restricted to 24hrs in London.
That process that takes us from the acceptance of what is consistently achievable is one long succession of 110% efforts. Great leaders understand this in both themselves and their teams. Giving 100% effort is a benchmark of what is consistently sustainable but when we are called on to deliver more we push ourselves and the more we push ourselves the better we become at delivering 110%. It is also important to reflect on what Stephen Shamnske defines as 100%- that which is reasonably consistently sustainable. Successful leaders understand the need to balance their work and that of their team. By giving 110% too frequently you can reduce your ability to consistently give 100% in the future. It is critical to understand and equate for balance. We all need downtime; and perfecting the skill of knowing when to ‘let go’ is key to being able to deliver at 110% when it is required.
Next time you sit in a meeting and hear an energetic team member talk about giving 110% don’t be so quick to dismiss their enthusiasm. Embrace it. Remember the Olympic motto isn’t Fastest, Highest, Strongest. Fastest is limited by the boundary of what is currently obtainable. Olympians strive to be Faster, Higher, Stronger. That desire to push boundaries is the extra 10% that winners, in business or sport always draw on to stay at the top.
About Dean Williams
Dean Williams is an acclaimed business coach and author of the book ‘Creating Grade A Business Relationships’. He works with blue chip companies and SMEs providing 121 executive coaching, team coaching, leadership seminars and alongside Olympic Gold Medalist Jason Gardener presents motivational speeches. He has been successful in helping suffering businesses by increasing their profitability and is a regular contributor to a range of business press including the Sunday Times.