Peak Performance

October 30, 1998

Presentation Summary

A keynote address to the State of the World Forum in San Francisco. What it is about exceptional organizations that allows them to consistently achieve at the very highest level? The search for the elements of “Peak Performance” took a team of researchers to meet the premier sports organizations in the world. The outcome is a new model of inspiration for institutions and an operating system for individuals.


This is the most exciting time in the history of the world to be alive.

We have extraordinary opportunities and challenges before us.

The new millennium awaits. What are we going to offer to it?

At Saatchi & Saatchi, we believe that “Nothing Is Impossible”.

This is our sustaining value. It always has been. It always will be. And that’s why we are a partner of the State of the World Forum.

Nothing is Impossible.

I know you all you feel this too.

A lot of people in the world, however, do not.

How then, do we encourage entire populations to believe positive things can happen?

How do we achieve a world that works for everyone?

Where do you look for Vision?

Who are the models for inspiration?

How do we achieve quantum change?

Where is the instruction manual?

Thank you Jim Garrison, and thank you to the five other inspirational players who have joined me here today, for the opportunity to talk about an idea that we are passionate about – Peak Performance.

I want to present an idea I believe has the potential to be world-changing. The idea is a new set of principles and gameplans that has enormous relevance to all organizations.

The thinking and verification of this idea is the work of a team from the University of Waikato in New Zealand. Professor Michael Pratt, Professor Clive Gilson, Dr Ed Weymes, and myself. We all teach students at the Waikato Management School.

We’re all optimists. We’re all organizational thinkers and doers. We have decades of experience. And we know there must be a better way.

The institutions that we once trusted now lack relevance and leadership. We can no longer rely on them. They are letting us down.

Governments and politicians lack imagination, they are wracked with division and partisanship, and they continually let their constituencies down. The model is flawed. They are destroying our trust and our belief.

Much organized religion is based on command, control and punishment. It struggles to become liberated amidst a global congregation that seeks tranquility, harmony and a broader sense of spirituality.

Corporations were once communities. You could depend on them for lifetime employment in return for loyal performance. Now, forget it. They’re all about quarterly earnings, shareholder value, re-engineering, restructuring, delayering, centralization and closures. People don’t count anymore.

The military continues to invest in overkill. There is no rational reason on the planet for nuclear weapons. I’m proud to be a New Zealander, because we’ve banned them forever. And I’m proud that my country participates in the essential global job of peacekeeping.

Generation Y – our three to 13 year olds – have it figured out. They only trust their families, and nothing outside the front door. But are they right? In an era of broken marriages, single-parent families, children born out of wedlock – will the family unit survive?

There has to be a better way. We believe that this is an age when there should be no limit to the number of winners.

The objective of our research team was to find a new model of inspiration for institutions, and an operating system for individuals. We’ve been looking for a set of principles that will take us over the cusp of uncertainty and onto greatness.

We have sought to identify the essential elements of organizations that maintain leadership over long periods of time.

We call this Peak Performance.

This is a realistic goal for every organization, commercial and non-commercial.

The fundamental question we’ve been asking is “How do you organise for peak performance?” We want to know what it is about exceptional organizations that allows them to consistently achieve at the very highest level. What keeps them at the top all day, every day? How do they stay continually turned-on and tuned-up?

From our research we have created a model called the Peak Performing Organization, or PPO. A PPO is strategically-driven and able to sustain outstanding long term performance to the maximum of its potential.

This is the only sort of organization or country or religion I want to be part of.

Other researchers in the field of management science have asked similar questions about the nature of sustained peak performance, and the conventional wisdom is to look at successful companies for answers.

We looked at the question differently.

The traditional view of business casts it as a battleground. For centuries we have applied military principles to business.

We have devised strategies to target the consumer; penetrate markets; destroy the competition; launch pre-emptive strikes on rivals; deploy salesforces to capture customers; saturate them with communications; and fire staff in reengineering, rightsizing and restructuring exercises.

That’s not what I work for. I lead my organization so I can be amazed and inspired. I work to enjoy myself and my company. I work to learn, to help, to teach, to achieve, to grow and to perform, not to wage war, engage in battle, or kill and destroy.

Our research team has become immersed in the world of sport for our inspiration.

We believe the sport of business is a more attractive metaphor than the art of war.

Sport is a rich arena for evidence of constant peak performance. Sport has become the tenth biggest industry in the United States. More than that, it’s the greatest social phenomenon of the 1990s. Bigger than music. Bigger than the movies.

Sport is empowering and enfranchising more young women and men than any other movement in this time.

The shared experience of sport has unrivalled relevance and cut-through to global audiences from every culture. The World Cup of Soccer final in France this year was watched by 1.7 billion people. Formula One Grand Prix races attract television audiences of 350 million viewers per race.

In our search for answers as to what are the elements of peak performance, we went to meet the best in the world. The premier sports organizations on the field of play. These organizations, their entire culture and infrastructures, not just the on-field players, have been the focus of our study.

The sports we chose were team based and global, with a critical mass of competitors and high participation rates in the general population in one or more countries. The teams we selected had exhibited continuous championship contention for at least a decade.

We found an extraordinary awareness and expectation of success. These organizations possess extreme confidence and awesome power. They offer intensely fulfilling and enjoyable working and learning opportunities for individual participants.

Who did we visit? In basketball there was only one choice – the Chicago Bulls. In Formula One racing it was natural to choose the exceptional performer of the past 20 years, the Williams team from England. In soccer we went to two legendary organizations, Manchester United in the UK and Bayern Munich from Germany. We studied the most winning baseball team of the 90s, the Atlanta Braves. In gridiron we visited the home team, the San Francisco 49ers. Australia has the world’s best cricket team, the best netball team and the best women’s hockey team.

The New Zealand All Blacks are a team with an eighty per cent win record over a century of continuous international play in the sport of rugby football. And also from New Zealand come the winners of the America’s Cup in yachting, the inspirational victors of the 1996 regatta.

We asked:

What is it about their organizations that enables their extraordinary success?

How is their magic sustained season after season, match after match?

What is it that enables them to win year on year championship titles?

How do they keep on winning?

And what are the lessons we can apply to all types of organizations, be they corporations, governments, not-for- profit organizations, churches, revolutionary movements, and also families and individuals?

Our visits were an anthropological search for cultural imperatives. We listened to peoples’ stories, to the legends, we observed, we immersed ourselves in ocean spray and screaming engines and packed stadiums. We developed a staggering amount of data, over 2,500 pages of transcripts from interviews with players, leaders, coaches, managers, fans and ticket-sellers.

We have been seriously inspired by our experiences. We have made a journey into the hearts, minds and guts of some of the most finely tuned, inspired and acclaimed individual performers, teams, athletes, coaches and leaders.

The outcome of our research are the Principles of Peak Performance. These are a set of organizing principles for sustained peak performance and continuous contention. Each principle plays to and draws from the others. The absence of any one weakens the ability of an organization to achieve and sustain peak performance.

We have called our first principle of peak performance Making Magic.

We heard the word “magic” used over and over to describe consistent success. On the surface it seems unexplainable. Last second goals, freakish plays, the overwhelming victories, the no hitters and the hat tricks.

Magic is mysterious. It’s intangible, it’s seductive and it’s powerful. And it produces real, in-your-face, results.

Magic is moments which become legends. Like when every living room, street corner and bar in Chicago and in points throughout the world erupted in euphoria, when Michael Jordan shot the basket in the last second to win the Chicago Bulls their sixth NBA title in seven years.

Magic is the essence of winning. It’s vital to a Peak Performing Organisation.

Making Magic is an inspirational aura that pervades an organization. It is a clear, unrelenting vision that this organisation is the best because extraordinary things happen here.

Making Magic is about creating a sustained and heightened feeling of expectation.

Magic is essential to maintaining the dream of greatness. Believing in magic keeps people believing that nothing is impossible. It keeps them passionate.

Frank Williams, of Williams Formula One, said it like this: “There are some very clever people working here, but the biggest advantage we have is magic. Most people here are nuts about what they do.”

The second principle is that Peak Performing Organizations need Inspirational Players.

Amazing players like Michael Jordan, the central figure in one of the great dynasties of modern sport, the Chicago Bulls.

Like major league players like Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner and president Stan Kasten who inspired the entire organization to believe the dream of becoming the best ball club in baseball. Their vision took the team from last place in 1990 to first place in 1991, and kept them there for most of the 1990s.

Or like Frank Williams, the tetraplegic wheel-chair bound genius whose disability strikes fear into the hearts of other Formula One Constructors because, one of them notes, “he has more time to think.”

Or like Jim Garrison, the inspirational player whose singular energy has brought us together at the State of the World Forum. In fact, this whole audience is made up of inspirational players who share the belief that the world can be a place that works for everyone.

Inspirational players are the stars, mentors and gamebreakers. They provide leadership, coaching and depth. They make moments of magic. They are consistently inspirational – the very essence of grit, guts and repeated displays of genius. Inspirational players are demanding, infectious, accessible and energetic. They inspire others with the confidence to exceed their personal best.

Through their presence they do more than win games – they become the legends that go on to inspire the belief of the organization in its own greatness. This belief is an essential ingredient of sustainability.

The third principle of a PPO is Creating the Future. PPOs have a deep commitment to developing team members from the very young onwards, and making sure they keep their key personnel for years and even decades. These key players act as coaches and mentors for the less experienced. They ensure that the culture of the organization is transmitted to each new member.

PPOs have built deep processes for scouting, selecting, attracting and progressing players. Players are bought in selectively to feed the dream. There is an unrelenting commitment to mentoring and development.

Creating the Future is a long term process. Michael Jordan joined the Bulls in 1984, but they didn’t win a championship until 1990. There aren’t many people like Michael who need two hands to display all of their championship rings.

Principle four of a PPO is Community, an intense sense of belonging among all of the organization’s members.

It’s hard to overstate the positive, motivating effect this sense of community had on the members of every organization we visited.

Community is at the base of genuine team play where sacrificial plays on and off the ball, on and off the field are the accepted norm.

All the members of PPOs told us of the importance of trust, of respect, friendship, pride, involvement, harmony, identity, belonging, family, tradition, ownership and loyalty.

Community means affirmation, selflessness and co-operation.

These are big concepts. Powerful words. The appreciation of Community has been a profound outcome for us, one we did not go looking for or expected, but the one that moved us the most.

The fifth principle is Exceeding Personal Best – a deep commitment by each individual to personal stretch. Exceeding personal best is the daily performance measure of the athlete. It’s their consuming obsession.

As Jonah Lomu, the biggest star in rugby, put it “What we hate most is coming second best to ourselves.”

When we offered that thought to Michael Jordan he wasn’t perturbed. The greatest player in basketball history’s response was “I don’t mind being second best to myself. Because then I’d be number one and two.”

We found everywhere a committed work ethic. Team members in every part of the organizations hold themselves supremely accountable and responsible for the impact their job has on the final performance.

This showed us a deep commitment to education and technical skills. But an equally important part of exceeding personal best is creativity, doing things differently, risk-taking, flair and intuition.

These are the aspects of an individual’s performance which can help the team find the edge that sends them over the top.

This leads to the sixth principle – Game Breaking Ideas.

Ideas are the key to a PPOs competitive advantage. PPOs enable all their people to continually push for and contribute new ideas which will enable them to play the game better than their opposition.

Most are small innovations, such as the way a sail on an America’s Cup boat is stitched together, or how the suspension is tweaked on a racing car to get point one percent of an improvement. Revolution is fine, but sustained peak performance usually comes from a continuous flow of new ideas.

A true ideas culture can only flourish where the fear of failure has been removed and risk taking is worshipped. PPOs adore experimentation. They pursue failure so they can learn from it.

Principle number seven is Game Focus. In a PPO, players focus on simple goals. The goals are well understood by everyone. Goals are challenging but achievable. Smaller goals contribute to larger ones. The next play, the next game, the next season, the next ten years.

Maintaining Game Focus is totally dependant on a team’s ability to continually re-focus their game. Nothing stays the same for long. To keep winning, teams must constantly change their goals.

Rolling gameplans, 100 day plans and short-term goals which concentrate energy and attention, and provide immediate direction and feedback. Success is visualized everywhere and everytime.

Principle eight describes the extraordinary ability PPOs have for Sharing The Dream.

PPOs are all inspired by a dream of greatness, and they are extremely skilled at sharing that dream with people outside their organisation – the fans, the sponsors, the public. They do this in a hundred ways. The physical arena, the pre-match rituals, the choreography and the orchestration. The broadcast rights, the profiling of their stars, the fan clubs, books, merchandising and all the other paraphernalia of association.

They use big devices like the gigantic image at Turner Field of the ball that Atlanta Braves legend Hank Aaron smashed out of the ball park to clock up 715 career home runs and beat Babe Ruth’s tally.

Whenever people come into contact with a PPO something special emerges. It could be fierce loyalty or simply enchantment with the contact.

Sharing the dream opens new business opportunities, more participants and more partners – and it helps to energize and sustain the dream within the organization.

The final principle is The Last Detail. The commitment to getting every last detail right.

The commitment comes from team members’ sense of individual responsibility, not from discipline and control exerted from the outside. It includes small superstitions and player rituals. The way an athlete ties his boots. The order a mechanic lays out his spanners on race day, every race.

There is no rule book for The Last Detail. It is the last straw that broke bureaucracy’s back.

PPO people understand that every detail of every organizational process, no matter how small, is vital since it could make the difference between winning and losing. The Last Detail is all about obsessive perfectionists.

Williams Formula One is obsessed with the last detail. Each car is completely pulled apart between races and subjected to over 200 diagnostic tests and then rebuilt. The workshop is meticulously clean, it looks more like an operating theatre than a garage.

Commitment to the Last Detail means PPO members value each and every job in the organization, no matter how small.

It means nobody questions the necessity of polishing the hull of a yacht or the nose cone of a racing car a thousand times to make it one thousandth of a second faster on every lap, because that may be the difference between winning and losing.

I believe that every organization can use the Principles of Peak Performance. Every organization should aspire to greatness like the teams we studied. Every organization can take inspiration from these stories.

If there is one over-riding learning we have taken from our study, it is that through the collective energy of its members, a Peak Performing Organization releases the awesome and wonderful potential of the human spirit.

Thank you very much for your time, it has been a privilege to present to you a snapshot of our team’s thinking. We’ll be telling our story in full in 1999 when our book on Peak Performing Organizations is published.

I would like to leave you with a taste of the peak performing community I am part of, the New Zealand All Blacks.

Kia Kaha!

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