Personal Productivity – Fanatic Discipline & the 20-Mile March

In Leadership, Self-Management

By Maura Fay Learning

Question: What do productive leaders, teams and organisations all share in common?

Answer: A fanatical discipline to methodically, carefully and consistently sticking to a goal instead of getting side-tracked by short-term temptations, fears and changing circumstances.

It sounds so simple, but let’s not confuse simple with easy. When we reflect on our own behaviours and that of our organisations, we’re all guilty of changing the goal posts, chasing the next shiny new thing, panicking during difficult times or expanding too aggressively when everything’s going well.

Taking the lessons from author Jim Collins in his book ‘Great by Choice’, Jim refers to this idea as the 20-Mile March based on a race to the South Pole in 1911 between two expedition teams led by Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott. Both teams made it to the South Pole, however Amundsen’s team made it there 34 days before Scott’s team and was declared the winner. Tragically Scott’s team died on their return trip as a consequence of starvation, cold and bad planning.

So, how does the story of this expedition relate to the 20-Mile March and personal productivity? In very simple terms, Amundsen showed fanatical discipline while Scott was impatient and inconsistent. Let’s unpack the story a little further.

Robert Scott had no consistent goal for how far they hoped to go each day, letting the daily weather conditions and fluctuating motivation levels dictate the pace. On a day with ideal conditions Scott and his team would travel 45-miles over 9-hours at a time. When the weather turned ugly, he might decide to not leave his tent at all.

Impatience was one of Scott’s weaknesses; he didn’t like sitting around and any kind of delay made him feel anxious. Scott pushed his men so hard on the way out to the South Pole that his men did not have enough strength left for the 700-mile return trip that turned out to be more arduous than the first half of the trek.

And finally with Scott, he patterned much of the trek after Ernest Shackleton in 1907 despite different conditions. Scott used horses for the first quarter of the trek (which didn’t work in arctic conditions) and then man-hauling for the rest where men were harnessed in a sled and pulled by the rest of the team (which was physically exhausting for the team). Each night Scott would check his progress with that of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition.

In contrast, Amundsen had a very different approach.

Roald Amundsen and his team skied and sledged for 5-6 hours a day and travelled 20-miles every day. This distance was not easy or exhausting but was at a pace that was doable in fair conditions as well as foul. It also allowed for any unforeseen scenario. This 20-miles a day represented a quarter of a degree of latitude; Amundsen realised that knocking off 1-degree of latitude every 4-days allowed the team to be able to imagine themselves inching their way across the map which was highly motivating for the group.

It’s not that Amundsen couldn’t have easily pushed the team and their dogs to do more, they were healthy and eager, but he deliberately chose this pace so as not to exhaust his team and run the risk of injuries and sickness.

And lastly, Amundsen took a very different route to Scott. Amundsen studied the work from the Eskimos and used dogs which were quicker and less maintenance than horses. He also took up basecamp at the Bay of Whales which was unchartered but also a more direct route to the South Pole.

It’s a great story with so many parallels to the way we work today. For example, using the Robert Scott failed approach, as leaders we can sometimes be guilty of …

  • Setting an ambitious 1-on-1 cadence with our direct reports at the start of the calendar year only to find that by February, the whole thing has unravelled.
  • Announcing team goals for the year ahead but continuing to add to these goals as the year unfolds.
  • Providing team goals without celebrating the milestones along the way to keep everyone on track.
  • Second-guessing our fabulous plan when we don’t see immediate results.
  • Turning up the intensity to meet a short-term goal only to make this the new norm and burn people out along the way.
  • Ploughing full steam ahead with an idea (that failed) when deep down we knew we should have taken the time to pilot something first.
  • Chasing the new idea and convincing ourselves in the process that this is right for the business when in reality it suits our desire to be always doing something different.
  • Copying the plans and ideas of others but realising that they don’t necessarily work for our people, conditions and culture.

And the list goes on!

So in essence the 20-Mile March idea is about leaders, teams and organisations applying a consistent rhythm of execution with discipline, applied to maintain a steady path. Based on the work of Jim Collins, a good 20-Mile March has seven key characteristics:

  1. Clear performance markers

Your performance markers basically set out your pace on route to your goal: the minimum effort you’re committed to making every day/week to where you want to be. This pace has to be challenging enough to stretch you when conditions are ideal, but still doable when factors change for the worse.

  1. Self-imposed constraints

It’s easy to get excited about a goal and go full throttle after it, but this frequently leads to burnout before you reach what you’re after. It’s also easy to panic when you see what other people are doing instead of running your own race. Self-imposed constraints keep your short-term temptations in check in favour of continuing to steadily progress towards your goals.

  1. Appropriate to the team or organisation

Don’t simply copy the goals and plans of others. Your 20-Mile March needs to be tailored to your personality, individual needs and the conditions of the environment. What worked for someone else (or even you at a different time) might not work for you now.

  1. Within the team or organisation’s control to achieve

A good 20-Mile March is a system that is achievable to you and your team within the constraints of your environment. Sometimes it’s easier to focus on the activity or behaviour that leads to a result rather than the result itself.

  1. A proper timeframe – long enough to manage, yet short enough to have ‘teeth’

Make the timeline of the march too short and you’ll be more exposed to uncontrollable variability; make the timeline too long and it loses momentum and energy.

  1. Imposed by the team or organisation and not by external forces

In order for your 20-Mile March to be truly effective, you need to be the architect and owner. Studies show that goals that are imposed by somebody else are less effective than goals that originate from within the person.

  1. Achieved with high consistency

Just like the race to the South Pole, the winners are usually the doggedly consistent tortoise and the not the sprint-and-snooze hare. The goal is to contribute to your 20-Mile March each day. You’ll have days when you won’t have the time or feel like doing it. That’s exactly when to put your backpack on and keep marching!

Whether you’re hearing about the 20-Mile March for the first time or you’re well versed with the concept, it’s important to understand that having a clear 20-Mile March focuses the mind because everyone on the team knows the markers and their importance and can stay on track. Financial markets, global competition and technology change is largely out of your control. But when you execute the 20-Mile March, you have a tangible point of focus that keeps you and your team moving forward, despite confusion, uncertainty and even chaos.

Take some time to discuss your own 20-Mile March with your team and your line manager, whether for an organisational, team or individual goal.

This blog is an extract for our upcoming eBook – The Personal Productivity Playbook. You can pre-register here and get your copy on launch day.

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