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Helping People Fly – The 70% Solution

In a metaphorical sense, every business is an experiment in human-powered flight, we want to give people wings to soar and do their best work. But more often than not, the plane we ask them to fly requires more power than they are capable of sustaining. Consider the following:

In 1979, the Gossamer Albatross completed the first successful human-powered flight across the English Channel, a distance of just over 22 miles. In order to achieve this feat, both airplane and pilot had to be carefully matched to ensure that the requisite power would be available throughout the entire flight.

The pilot was an amateur cyclist named Bryan Allen. Before being chosen, Allen was hooked up to all kinds of testing equipment to determine both his maximum strength and his sustainable levels of output so that the aircraft could be designed in a way that would allow him to power it safely across the Channel. The researchers discovered that Allen, who was in superb physical condition, was capable or sustaining 70% of his maximum output for extended periods of time. If Allen had to boost his output to 80% of maximum for five minutes, an equal period of time was required at between 50 and 60% to recover his ability to get back to 70% output. Moving up to the 90 to 100% range required dropping down to around 10% of his energy in order to recover. If he went anaerobic (exceeded 100% of his available energy – doable in short bursts) he would be forced to a complete stop.

Based on these measurements it was determined that Allen could sustainably produce 0.4 horsepower by pedaling at a steady 75 rpm for several hours at a time. The aircraft design team then needed to produce a plane that could stay aloft for about three hours using no more than 0.4 horsepower. That 0.4 hp was the workload that Allen had to be able to meet to keep himself and the plane from crashing. For Allen 70% of his maximum marked the upper end of his “optimal zone.” When operating within this range, he could sustain 70% effort for long time periods without the need to slow down and recharge.

Let’s consider the lessons above in terms of the workloads we put on people at work. An athlete in top physical condition can sustain 70% of their maximum energy output for extended periods of time. Pushing beyond that line incurs significant costs in terms of recovery and downtime. When we arrive at the office most of us are not exactly in peak form and more often than not, we're faced with workloads that demand that we operate beyond our optimal zone.

It doesn’t have to be this way!

More and more businesses are waking up to the fact that people are not machines. The metaphor of the workplace as a finely tuned machine is dehumanizing. The machine metaphor is an affront to human dignity and well being. Demanding 100% effort, 100% of the time is a recipe for disaster. It’s unreasonable and unsustainable. It incurs huge costs in terms of burnout, missed deadlines, healthcare, job dissatisfaction, and lack of engagement at work, not to mention the costs exacted on the families and communities of the people attempting to meet such unreasonable work demands.

“What if bringing our the best in your people was not a matter of demanding more from them, but less?”

Is your business demanding that your people operate beyond their optimal zone? What if you made a conscious effort to match workload to employee capacity? What if bringing out the best in people was not a matter of demanding more from them, but less? What if all the managers who are faced with performance reviews, assessed your direct reports on how to find their optimal zone and then matched their workload to it? What would shift? What if you discovered that by lowering performance expectations by 30% and hiring a few more staff people you might see a significant increase in team output? Some comments on this post point out that reducing people's workload to match their optimal zone is easier said than done. Why is that? Partly, I think it has not been tried very often. Would it be worth experimenting with this idea to find out?

There is a massive change occurring in the workplace today, including the threat to jobs posed by AI. It’s time we talk about how to strengthen the economy by creating more jobs and giving people meaningful work. History has shown that when people are excluded from economic prosperity the results are catastrophic. Some organizations are still playing the old zero-sum game of economics, while others have discovered that expanding the size of the pie is far more effective than fighting over who gets the bigger slice. For an excellent overview of this concept check out “A Selfish Argument for Making the World a Better Place.”

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