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Break Through The Monkey Traps

Tips to foster a “winning streak” mentality

In Southeast Asia, monkeys are trapped and moved away from the cities because they cause too much destruction. The natives have concocted a rather ingenious way of capturing them, according to author Robert Persig in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The monkeys love rice, which the natives cleverly use as bait. Persig says, “A monkey trap consists of a hollowed-out coconut chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside, which can be grabbed through a small hole. The hole is big enough so the monkey’s hand can go in, but too small for his fist with rice to come out. The monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped—by nothing more than his own rigidity. He can’t revalue the rice. He cannot see that freedom without rice is more valuable than capture with it.”

As the monkey struggles, trying to withdraw his hand but refusing to let go of the rice, the natives walk calmly over, grab the monkey and throw him in a gunny sack. It’s not the trap that captures him; it’s his own rigid brain that does him in. He can’t revalue the rice in the context of freedom, so he ends up losing both.

What’s the Lesson?
Just like the monkey, many of us are stuck in our own “value rigidity.” Statements like, “There’s not much we can do until the economy turns around,” and “That’s not the way we do things around here,” are monkey-trap phrases. Often, we’re in a rut and don’t know it. A rut is just like a monkey trap—nothing is keeping us stuck except our inability to recognize that we’ve trapped ourselves. To change, we must start with ourselves. As Pogo once said in the famous comic, “We have met the enemy, and they are us.”

A good example of value rigidity was 3M’s initial unwillingness to develop Post-It-Notes. In 1968, Spencer Silver, the inventor of the “faulty glue,” knew there was a product in the making, but couldn’t figure out exactly what it might be. All 3M saw was a mistake. “When we make glue, it sticks,” was the prevailing attitude of the executives. Five years later, Art Fry, who attended one of Silver’s seminars trying to sell his glue invention, came up with the idea to put the adhesive on small pieces of paper so he could use them in his choir hymnbook. Together, he and Silver got management, four years later, to finally go to market with the new product that is now a 3M mainstay. How many millions of dollars did they lose until they got out of their monkey trap?

Get on a Winning Streak
Are you or your company in a monkey trap? How do you get unstuck? You need to revalue many things that you accept to be true and question your pre-suppositions. Get less rigid. Get more open. Only then can you get on a winning streak.

Below are five research-based ideas to help you, your company or association get started on a winning streak. Work with executives and employees at companies from the Fortune 500 to small entrepreneurial groups, plus experience with sports teams at the high-school, university and professional levels, has indicated a number of traits that are common to all people and teams who are on a winning streak. The idea is to incorporate these traits into yourself and your teams to more quickly achieve the performance levels you need. Here are the five characteristics of winning streaks.

#1 Confidence
We’re talking about reality-based optimism, not Pollyanna thinking. Recent research indicates that there is a tipping point for changing medio-cre results into a winning streak of top performance. According to Barbara Frederickson, Ph.D., a 3:1 positive-to-negative ratio in your thoughts and actions build your ability to flourish and develop confidence. There are behaviors you can repeat until they become habits that help you become more optimistic. One such behavior is becoming aware of your “explanatory style.” What do you say to yourself when things go wrong? Do you grimace and curse silently, or do you smile and call it a learning experience? If your explanations when things go wrong are negative, change your self-talk to positive and begin to view work and life from a consistently more affirmative perspective. By seeing what athletes say to reporters after a loss, you can get a very good idea of their level of optimism and whether or not they are consistent winners.

#2 Energy
The brain and body work together. Physical movement is necessary to increase mental tough-ness in business and life. (When asked about the tools needed for top performers, Jack Welch, the former General Electric CEO, answered, “Energy, always number one.”) Becoming physically active automatically provides the energy needed to get unstuck. A recent Wall Street Journal article talks about a growing number of companies offering exercise programs not just for health reasons, but because people who walk, run or lift weights have more energy and are consistently more positive.

#3 Creativity
Do yesterday’s answers solve today’s problems? I don’t think so. The new, tough landscape gives us freedom to become “explorers.” The old ways don’t work, and we have to come up with new ones. Creativity turns breakdowns into break-throughs. We must access the tools to develop a “beginner’s mind” as a way to look at any situation from a different point of view. For example, Teflon was designed as a potential nose coating for rockets. When that didn’t work, one of the scientists joked that “you could fry an egg on that stuff.” So they did, and the Teflon industry (and a new way to joke about slick politicians) was born.

#4 Communication

In tough times, winning teams communicate more—not less—and with a heightened sense of fun for better results. Studies in neuroscience teach us how to communi-cate to people’s strengths, give actionable feedback and create an environment for new ideas and solutions. Open communication is essential to starting and maintaining a winning streak.

Jim Tracy, manager of Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies and the 2009 National League Manager of the Year, took over a team 15 games out of first place and incorporated aspects of winning-streak thinking. His team made the playoffs.

Apple has had a winning streak of products since Steve Jobs came back as CEO. Networking at Cupertino, Apple’s headquarters, is abundant, positive and fun—all traits of winning teams.

#5 Action
Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not the absence of fear.” Fear stops us from taking action. Research at Harvard by Rosabeth Moss Canter, Ph.D., shows that you have to have a win to start a winning streak. Strategically placed small victories help us push past fear and into action. Small victories that you create for yourself give you a confidence level which helps you overcome the fear of taking action. Making warm-up calls to colleagues or friends gets you ready for the tougher calls that involve big proposals or unpleasant feedback.

Winning teams are aggressive and flexible at the same time. Every time you get tentative, you lose. Your brain chemistry and psychology pulls you back into the mire of “stuckness,” and you can’t compete at a winning level.

The thing is, if you stay in the monkey trap, act out of fear and lack the creativity to start something different, you not only lose both your rice and your freedom—your journey can never be fun.

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Peter McLaughlin

Meet the Author
Peter McLaughlin is principal of The McLaughlin Company, located in Denver, Colorado, and on the Web at www.petermclaughlin.com.

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