Of the four major championships in golf, the PGA championship has often had the highest purse. In 2021, it set a record for its own tournament with a purse of $12MM of which just over $2MM was earmarked for the winner. The difference between first and second place winnings? Almost, $1MM. As the winner of the Wannamaker, Phil Mickelson made off with $2,160,000.00. Two players, Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka tied for second place. They each earned $1,056,000.00. Nine players tied for 8th place and earned $263,000.00 each.
For that $1MM difference in winnings from first to second place, what was the difference in the scores? Second place was just two shots behind the winner. Two shots over four days, rounds, and 72 holes. Each of those shots were worth about $500,000.00. The difference between second place and those in eighth? Another three shots. Again, three shots over four days, four rounds, and 72 holes. Each of those shots were worth around $250,000.00. Prize money is earned only by the top 70 finishers in the tournament. The last place “winners” received around $20,000.00 or less than 1% that of the tournament champion.
Golf is just one example what so many sports showcase. Sports shine the light on the drama of little differences. It’s what’s so compelling about competition. The stakes are so high and the margins of victory so small. The razor’s edge of results can cruelly cut right through the hearts of the most hardened competitors. In Paid to Think, David Goldsmith introduces the idea of WBAN. WBAN is Win By A Nose. The reference comes from horse races where a horse can be said to have won by a nose. Whether a photo finish, a win by a nose, or victory by some other sliver, being on the right side of these wins can be life changing. Election outcomes can also be narrowly contested. The US Presidential campaign of Al Gore and George Bush in 2000 is the classic example. A US Senator back in the early 1800s is credited with the phrase, “To the victor goes the spoils.” The winner wins and the loser makes off with much less if anything.
Professional athletes know full well the balance between risk and reward in their sport. They don’t complain about competition. They cherish it. They seem almost desperate to devote every ounce of their attention to putting themselves in a position to be on the right side of the razor’s edge of results. They exert intense effort exploring the edges of themselves and their craft. They diligently pour obsessively over the smallest of detail in order to give themselves a chance at doing a victory dance. They become better because of the intensity of competition. The race for results brings out their best. The high stakes stimulate a search for continuous improvements.
Goldsmith points out, “A by-the-nose win or loss can dramatically change your outcomes.” Though the stakes of “wins” in our work worlds may not be nearly as high as those of sport and politics, small changes in our approaches can have outsized results. Goldsmith observes, “a micro adjustment can determine a by-a-nose win or loss. Little things can make a big difference. Goldsmith invites us to “consider if you were able to land a few more of your lost wins. If you had just one more sale per day in a retail shop, one more home sold per month in real estate, 1% more of your customers saying ‘Yes!’ These small improvements can snowball into huge results… Do the math. If you had won just 10% more of the contracts you had lost, what would your world be like today?” In a separate example, Goldsmith suggests micro wins in the realm of making decisions can lead to massive improvements. Goldsmith points out that, “If ten people in your organization each make one smarter decision each day, that’s 2,500 better decisions over the course of a 250-day work year.” Small changes can make big differences.
High performance shares an affinity for and aspiration to differentiating details. Whether in sport, politics, arts, or business, achievers lean into doing the smallest of things well. At the heart of high performance lies those that happily sweat the small stuff. A note from Admired Leadership points out that “Details often seen as unimportant or irrelevant to average performers become a point of hyper-focus and discipline for those who achieve mastery. This obsession with details is so commonly shared by the world’s top performers in every field and sport, it is not surprising the best leaders are also fixated on details in ways that others aren’t. Details differentiate between average and outstanding, between good and great.”
In Stand Out, Dorie Clark writes about bestselling author, Daniel Pink. Pink does something many high-profile authors would absolutely avoid. Pink includes his email address on his book covers and his website. Moreover, he makes an absolute commitment to responding to any and all emails he receives from his readers. Pink offers, “If someone has spent twenty-five dollars and devoted five or six hours of their life to something I created, I can spend five minutes answering their email.” Pink’s willingness to pay attention to the small detail of being responsive to his readers separates him from other authors and has resulted in a fan base that happily pre-orders any books he produces. Pink is a consistent high performer in part due to his willingness to identify a detail overlooked by others and personally pursue it.
Several years ago, a group of investors purchased our local ski resort. One of the shareholders became the resort’s lead operator. He had no background in the hospitality industry and had never been involved in a ski resort before. His background was running a home building company and being the Mayor of a nearby town. His first act as operator of the resort? Ensuring the bathrooms were clean. From there, the efforts moved to keeping the day lodge and eating areas clean. He could be seen walking the resort picking up garbage. It was a message that came from the top and trickled down to every staff member. The face of the resort improved because of consistent, small acts of care keeping it clean. The experience of all guests was improved in a memorable way by simple, consistent acts. Whatever our role and industry, there are details that matter to our performance. Goldsmith writes, “The timeliness of a contractor’s bid submission, the politeness of a company’s receptionist, the cleanliness of a restroom . . . every component of an organization contributes to its success or failure. And it’s up to leaders like you to make sure that you’re continually focused on the right matters at the right time—systems, structure, processes, personnel, capital, and more—to keep all of those components working harmoniously and optimally.”
High performance is about seeking out the details that make a difference and then applying conscious effort to improving these areas. High performance follows spending a high percentage of time focused on improving. In What the Most Successful People Do at Work, Laura Vanderkam observed the schedules of high performers in several fields. Vanderkam notes, “Judging from her schedule, it seems Fisher spent around half her time as a professional driver actively trying to get better at her job. The professional musicians I’ve interviewed over the years develop similar schedules.” No lesser authority than Arnold Schwarzenegger offered, “There are no shortcuts—everything is reps, reps, reps.”
How much of our workday is spent trying to improve? Why aren’t we focused on getting better in the same way as athletes and other performers? What’s our PIP? Do we each have a personal improvement plan? A personal improvement plan shouldn’t be seen as just corrective action for poor performers. Instead of being the scarlet letter of shame placed on low performers, it should be our badge of honor. We should be proud of the things we’re working on to get better. Perhaps we don’t have the luxury of spending half or more of our time refining our skills. After all, something must get accomplished once in a while. However, improvement shouldn’t be something left on the shelf. What reps are we putting in daily to improve our contributions to our businesses?
If we accept that we should be working to improve and that little details can make a small difference, what details matter? In business, the difference makers usually lie in areas which contact customers. Customer experience can be enhanced by modest increased attention. Product and service design matters. Is it easy for customers to use your service? Do you have staff on hand that can anticipate pain points and reach out to offer solutions? How easy is it for customers to access what they need from your business? Is it easy for customers to pay for your services? Are there ways you can reach out to add value to them after they have made a purchase from you? Embrace creating your own personal improvement plan by seeking out and adopting tiny tactics that will build opportunities for success for your organization. Consider the idea as a way to achieve the IOTA advantage where Improvements Over Time Accumulate.
- Whether a photo finish, a win by a nose, or victory by some other sliver, being on the right side of these wins can be life changing.
- The high stakes stimulate a search for continuous improvements.
- Little things can make a big difference.
- At the heart of high performance lies those that happily sweat the small stuff.
- High performance is about seeking out the details that make a difference and then applying conscious effort to improving these areas.
- How much of our workday is spent trying to improve?
- We should be proud of the things we’re working on to get better.
- Seek the IOTA advantage where Improvements Over Time Accumulate.