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You cannot be an Island of Excellence in a Sea of Chaos – Three Tips

Island of Excellence

All too often I come across organisations where firefighting, expediting, and the resulting underperformance is their Groundhog Day. Unpredictable outcomes, variability and instability are the scourge of many companies and left unaddressed invariably lead to business failure.

However, where chaos reigns, I sometimes observe individuals and teams trying to live in their own order, and even maintain standards of excellence for themselves. An interesting topic to explore: we need folks to constantly challenge, to be dissatisfied with the ‘now’, and to reflect to improve. In addition, we need to spread and sustain these continuous improvement efforts. But you cannot position yourself as an island of excellence in a sea of chaos, let me explain why and offer some tips.

Here are three common reasons for people to believe in their island of excellence:

  1. The Ostrich Traditionalist: closed-minded on different views and ways, remaining stuck in the nostalgia of their early career. What might have been best practice in the past is likely superseded now. But they are often too afraid to admit they don’t know, hence the clinging to mum’s dress of the past.
  2. The Frustrated Transplant: having seen excellence (or at least better practice) elsewhere, they shake their heads in disbelief about what they observe. A series of unsuccessful change projects or initiatives later they retreat to their island, having tried, but given up on changing the organisation.
  3. And last but not least, the Delusional Narcissist: we have had the perfect display of this over the last four years, and I’m afraid we may see copy-cats. No need to explain that in light of data and truth, they remain convinced everybody else is wrong. If only the rest of the organisation would fall into line.


Depressing as that sounds, not all is lost. Here are three tips on how to break through:

  1. Your beliefs and resilience drive you – examine these. Improvement is possible and requires sustained, focused, and empathetic action. Remember the Edison quote: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
  2. Be self-aware: are you contributing to the chaos and not taking accountability for it? If you might be a chaos contributor, be the change you want to see. Introduce small steps towards personal discipline and rigour every day, hold it, and do it again. Like climbing a mountain, step by step.
  3. If you battle chaos but do not personally contribute to this, you need to lead across, up, and out. Leaders take responsibility for the whole. Have a conversation with your peers and leaders. Paint a vision of a place where stable operations and predictable outcomes prevail. Align your team not on what stands between you, but what stands before you. Build an inclusive plan to introduce organisational rigour and discipline. And execute that plan in a rigorous way: Plan Do Check Act.

I am interested in your experiences – Have you met Ostrich Traditionalists, Frustrated Transplants, or even Delusional Narcissists? How have you overcome your challenge?

About the author: Geerten Lengkeek is the Managing Director of Productivity People and Co-founder of the Global Lean Alliance