“When life looks like easy street there is danger at your door.” The Grateful Dead
The journey to success is analogous to mountain climbing. While the goal is to ascend continually to reach the peak, sooner or later you will arrive at a plateau, a place where your routine becomes monotonous and your performance might even begin to slowly decline. This can apply to not only your business but to your workouts, even your relationships. I would distinguish a plateau from a slump in the following way: When you’ve reached a plateau, you’re taking actions that yield slightly diminishing returns – you hardly notice a slight dip in results. And while you might feel a vague uneasiness along with reduced enthusiasm for the task at hand, you tend to hit the snooze button, perhaps repeatedly, and keep doing what you’ve been doing. Versus a slump, in which nothing’s working and you’re feeling totally deflated. While not fatal to your career, spending extensive time on a plateau will most likely degenerate into a slump.
In their book The Plateau Effect, Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson explore this topic and share tips on how to break free. If you’re continually doing things that used to work in the past but are now yielding spotty results at best, the authors suggest you are unaware of the “just-noticeable difference.” This explains “why we continue forging ahead when we’re in the throes of a plateau – we just don’t realize how much less we’re getting for our efforts.”
Rest assured – everyone experiences this leveling-off state, with the associated challenge of breaking through. “No one sits down beneath a tree and enjoys easy-street inspiration from the muses. It is always a struggle.” Rather than give up, a plateau is “designed to derail you. Expecting the fight is half the battle.” Unlike average performers, high achievers are willing to confront a stalled situation head on. I don’t know if you love or hate the New York Yankees, but even a perceived superstar like Derek Jeter is not immune. The authors share the story of Jeter’s declining defensive statistics at shortstop. In 2008 Jeter hired a new personal trainer, who put him through a rigorous training drill to correct his first step to the left to cut off ground balls up the middle. The result? Jeter won a Gold Glove in 2009. (Oh, yeah – the Yankees happened to win the World Series that year.)
Sullivan and Thompson cite the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset, as providing a clue for the appropriate mental approach to move beyond a plateau. Dweck has identified two types of people: Those with a fixed mindset, who believe they are about as good as they’re going to get and stay stuck; and those who have a growth mindset, who believe they can solve any problem by continuously tweaking their ongoing effort. Sticking with a difficult problem is a hallmark of growth mindset people, who “look at failure for what it truly is – a combination of effort and circumstance – and can hone their habits into peak behaviors and achieve greatness.”
In his book The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle reinforces Dweck’s conclusion about how one can get beyond the notion that your gifts might be limited, that you will eventually wind up on a “talent-limited plateau,” destined to remain there before you slowly drift down to a lower level. He introduces the concept of “deliberate practice,” not unlike what Derek Jeter took on to improve his fielding. This requires you to shake things up – if you expect a different result from doing more of the same you will be exemplifying Einstein’s definition of insanity. The idea is to be willing to alter your approach (and being willing to fail at it for a while) to improve your outcome.
As a business coach, I help my clients regularly move off of a plateau, so let me suggest an “idea” of how you can move upward off yours. IDEA is an acronym for Identify, Define, Execute and Account. You can do this alone, but I suspect it will work better with a mentor, coach or peer group. Below are some questions you can ask of yourself and steps to take, along with a case study of how I worked with a client of mine on this.
Identify Ask the following: Where am I at today? Where do I want to get to? What’s working? What’s not working? My client wanted to grow his clientele via networking, believing that the contacts he had established offered a large untapped opportunity. He regularly attended the monthly luncheons of his local Chamber of Commerce for several years – although he had often given referrals to other business owners he rarely got one in return. He wanted to continue to expand his network via the Chamber but knew he needed to tweak his approach.
Define Lay out an action plan. What specific behaviors do I need to engage in to move off the plateau? Do I need to tweak what I’m already doing, or do something new? We identified that just going to the Chamber meetings was a good place to meet people but not for developing deeper business relationships. So he committed to attending each monthly luncheon with the objective of making two contacts per meeting. Then he would follow up by setting one-on-one breakfast meetings with each person to share business-building ideas and identify mutual useful introductions.
Execute Take action on your plan. What am I committed to doing in the next week/month/quarter to start growing again? For the next three months, my client attended the Chamber lunches, made two contacts per meeting and went to one-on-one breakfasts with each member he met.
Account Evaluate your results. Did I do what I said I would do? How did that work/not work? He followed through fully on these networking activities, and for his effort received one high-quality introduction who became an excellent client. He committed to continue this approach, knowing it was moving him off of the “no-results” Chamber plateau he was on.
Using this IDEA format, you can address any plateau you find yourself on and begin the process of change. I don’t claim this will be easy. But is it harder to work on improving your results or to endure the boredom of standing still?
One final note about a plateau: It’s OK to hang out on a plateau for a while, enjoy the scenery, smell the roses, relax, refresh, even renew yourself. It’s only when you become aware of the “just-noticeable difference” and have that not-so-nice backsliding feeling that it’s time to lace up your boots and head back up the mountain.