Sometimes in my workshops with clients I run exercises around how a team can create possible futures as opposed to just plausible and probable ones. This is akin to what Google have termed '10X' thinking. The idea of creating disproportionate rather than incremental gain. Ideas that force you to break things open, work from first principles, and put them back together again in a different way rather than focusing on marginal improvements on existing systems.
Ironically 10X is sometimes easier to consider than incremental advancement since the latter typically forces you to focus on adjusting and optimising existing systems and processes that many people may have already spent considerable time looking at. Of-course both marginal gain and breakthroughs are important but it's also interesting how incentives are so often aligned around the former, not 10X improvement.
The story of Ukranian pole vaulter Sergey Bubka can tell us more about what can happen when incentives are aligned to incremental gain. Bubka was an amazing athlete who revolutionised his sport through his athleticism, technique and talent. His strength and speed enabled him to use a heavier pole for greater leverage and to hold it right at the end which most vaulters were not strong enough to do. His technique allowed for more recoil to be loaded into the pole. When combined with a longer run up than most other athletes this greater speed and leverage propelled him, literally, to new heights. After winning the world championship in 1983 at the age of 19 he went on to win it a further 6 times. He broke the world pole vaulting record no less than 35 times (18 indoor and 17 outdoor), pushing the record from 5.83 meters before him, to 6.14m, breaking and then exceeding the fabled 6 metre barrier.
Bubka was so good and so dominant in fact, that sponsors shied away from offering him the traditional win bonuses that most athletes at the elite level get. Instead Nike saw an opportunity to incentivise around world records. Bubka would get up to $100,000 every time he broke the world record. So Bubka made a smart decision and set about breaking his own world records as often and as incrementally as possible. Something he was very successful in doing. Between 1991 and 1993 for example, he improved his previous record no less than 14 times. His final record of 6.14 metres, set in 1994, stood for 20 years before being broken by Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie.
Elite sports men and women often have an special moment where everything comes together and they are able to take their performance to a completely different level that they subsequently struggle to realise again. But as has been noted before (and as the film below suggests) the question is can we really be sure that we truly witnessed Bubka vault as high as it was possible for him to go? Might he have actually have been able to go much further earlier?
We'll never know. But taking this back into business the point is that so many performance management and incentive systems are geared towards incremental improvement and gain. If that is what you incentivise and with all other necessary things in place, that is what you will get. But in organisations shouldn't we also be incentivising real breakthroughs as well?