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Systematic improvement is mundane

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Systematic improvement is mundane

Scott Miker

When we evaluate success we often find terms such as luck and talent dominating our concepts.  We point to hard work and time spent training.

While these are all aspects of the journey towards excellence, many argue that these are merely vague generalities that are only applied after success.  One of the best articles to address this fallacy is The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers by Daniel F. Chambliss.

Chambliss addresses success from the standpoint of Olympic swimmers but applies the insight to all areas of success.  The main argument Chambliss makes is that qualitative actions are much more important than quantitative efforts.  This seems to form a complete counter argument to Malcolm Gladwell’s work Outliers.

In qualitative actions, Chambliss emphasizes the value of many small improvements in technique and approach rather than simply doing more of something.  Spending more time on something doesn’t help achieve excellence.  Just as driving automobiles for fifty years doesn’t make someone an expert at driving. 

To improve, therefore, means improving not just doing more of something.  One example that Chambliss provides is that of Mary T. Meagher, who held the world record for the 200 Meter Butterfly race. 

He says, “Meagher made two quite mundane changes in her habits, either one of which anyone could do, if he or she wanted.  Within a year Meagher had broken the world record in the butterfly.”

In life, we often attribute success to such factors as luck or talent.  But when we are really involved, we tend to see much more detail.  We see elements that form the foundation for success.  Often times, these are mundane details.  These are small changes and elements that slowly grow one’s abilities and further push towards excellence. 

Chambliss then goes on to give further examples, “A willingness to spend ten minutes a year writing a Christmas card can maintain an old friendship for decades; a faulty telephone system, which cuts off one-quarter (or even one-tenth) of all incoming calls can ruin a travel agency or mail-order house; a president who simply walks around the plant once in a while, talking with the workers, can dramatically improve an organization’s morale – and it’s product (Peters and Waterman, 1982); a secretary, that archetypal manager of mundane work, can make or destroy an executive, or even an entire division.”

Then Chambliss provides the most direct insight, “Again, the conclusion: the simple doing of certain small tasks can generate huge results.  Excellence is mundane.”

This ties in perfectly with the systems and habits approach to improvement.  By focusing on small steps and small tasks, we can start to improve the quality of what we are doing.  We can form the right habits and push towards excellence.  And, we can do so in a consistent manner, always striving to get better. 

We have to do the mundane, important steps, and we have to do them over and over again.  We can’t assume doing something once will be enough.  We have to ingrain these actions so that we turn to them automatically.  This, then, becomes the difference between success and failure.  Those who can harness the small elements and the details are much more likely to achieve excellence than those who ignore those crucial areas. 


To view the article, click here