05 May 2011

Is It Better to Be Reliable or Excellent?

A few weeks ago, I paid homage to Maj. Gen. John Schofield for his insight into what makes Soldiers successful. To be more specific, he referred to battlefield success as "reliability."

I instinctively concluded that reliability was a goal for every organization that required performance from individuals.

Then I was challenged. From a reader:
Interesting that you point out that the goal is "reliability" as opposed to something else like "excellence" or "commitment" or "creativity" or "sheer awesomeness." I think that sometimes in a non-battle situations, I'd actually prefer someone who's a little bit unreliable but capable of flashes of creativity and greatness.
It was a good challenge, but ultimately, the call on the field was upheld.

First, some concessions. Semantically, "excellence" could imply reliability. Some Army types would offer some rigamarole about how excellent means reliable and vice versa. 

But the way the reader framed it makes it clear that it's possible to be excellent inconsistently. We know that there are pro athletes who are capable of excellence, or who can dominate one night, then not show up the next. As a teacher, I had many students with those flashes, or even longer glows, of brilliance, but who were hopelessly uncommitted.

When I coached, I would have loved to have amazingly skilled athletes. I rarely had them. Much more valuable to me were the reliable ones, on whom I could count for dependable performances. Slow and steady wins the race, as the saying goes. 

In battle, General Scholfield knew, dependability and consistency is also more important than brilliance, if leaders don't know when it will show up.

How do Army leaders cultivate consistency, then? Drills and procedures. Their methods offer lessons to teachers who want consistency in the classroom, too. Best practice is rife with drills and procedures (without all the yelling).

That gets to Schofield's point: discipline-- based on drills, I presume-- is best developed by mutual respect. In that regard, the Soldiers can take notes from good teachers. 

Yeah, yeah, we want to cultivate creativity, of course. We want our students to think as individuals. All that, of course, goes without even saying. What does need to be said is that none of those lofty goals are possible without a foundation of consistency, dependability, and yes, reliability.

As a teacher, I believe that all learners are capable of excellence. But just like the coach that needs consistent play from his athletes, I know that they will achieve excellence only if put into the right position. 

So my readers were once again sage: By a 15 to one ratio, they also said that reliability was preferable.

I knew I could count on them. 


  1. The more I've thought about this, the more I completely disagree that reliability is a consistent key to high performing organizations. For SOME high performing organizations and SOME situations, yes... where the cost of failure is high, and the benefits of success are moderate. For soldiers, where the cost of failure on a mission is high (potential death), I think reliability is a key attribute. But for many other real-life challenges, it's common for the stakes of failure to be relatively low, and the benefits of varying degrees of success to be enormous. In those situations, it's the risk-adverse people who fail. Systems that reward consistency and reliability at the expense of creativity and risk-taking are only going to work for incremental changes and straightforward solutions. Whenever big challenges, unfamiliar patterns, and complex opportunities emerge, I've seen that the "old reliable" tricks will often fail, and you need someone who's not afraid to take chances and try something new. That's typically not the person who's been trained to simply go through the drills.

    When I've built my business teams (which, as a sidenote, tend to be very successful), I make sure that I have some reliable people on the team. But I also make sure that we have some crazy, out-of-the-box, completely UNRELIABLE people on the team who can challenge our way of thinking, and who can push us to new and different directions. And I don't punish those people for being unreliable... on the contrary, I reward them for taking a risk.

    So if you've really got 15:1 readers who are always successful with reliability, I say good for them. But it could just be the way you asked the question, and not a true reflection of what they've actually seen as leading to success. Perhaps follow up questions could be something like, "Does reliability always lead to success?" or "How often is it better to focus on other attributes besides reliability?"

  2. I agree. You've totally opened my eyes, and I'm not being sarcastic. I guess, coming from a teaching atmosphere (reinforced in a military setting) I see reliability as being a more important measure.

    To speak to your point about success, I would say that, unless your organization is reliable, it'll likely not be in a position to benefit from excellence. That you make sure you have both reliable workers and creative ones addresses that point.

    It's weird, I always run against the grain in the Army when I lobby for out of the box thinking. I guess it's because I assumed that everyone is already reliable, so it's good to take risks.

    Maybe that could be the coda here: You wouldn't hire someone (I don't think) unless they had some track record of reliability. Risk taking is definitely good. But it only benefits the organization or team if you have more grounded people there.

    Back to a military example. Nearly every Medal of Honor has been awarded to those Soldiers who took risks. They didn't follow the doctrine, and if they had, more people would have been killed or hurt. The manuals are prescriptions for reliability. That having been said, those heroic risk takers were in a position to excel because they had been reliable for so long, and the recognized the opportunity to break from orthodoxy.

    I wonder if we're playing word games.

  3. Yes, we could be playing word games to some degree... reliability could mean "hard work" or "consistent results" or "lack of errors" or "never doing anything surprising" ... all of which mean something very very different.

    Yet I do think that "picking a word" (or a few words) to describe your top goal is important, since it can impact a lot of your supporting actions.

    I like your examples, and I think we agree on a lot of points.

    I guess there are two points that I'm trying to emphasize:
    1. If you're trying to pick a single word to say that "____ leads to success," then I think that "reliability" is only the best word for SOME organizations, SOME of the time, for SOME goals. And in many cases, trying to focus on reliability could actually push you in the wrong direction.

    2. Asking "which is best: reliability or excellence?" is kind of like asking, "which food is best: potatoes or rice?" You'll get an answer which tells you a preference between two things. But you can't use that to then extrapolate and say that the "voters agree that potatoes is therefore the best food in the world" or "voters agree that potatoes are essential to a healthy/successful diet." You don't even know if voters think that potatoes are good... all you know is that they are preferred to rice.

  4. Sure, maybe honesty is better than all other virtues. Or patience.

    But the entire argument started with a reference to a general who thought that reliability in battle was a pretty worthy goal. He could have certainly said, "victory," but that is about as helpful as saying, "health" is the best way to be healthy.

    Given that we all want to be "excellent," which I would define as consistently high achievement, I think reliability is an enabling virtue.

    Getting back to organizational success... Are there any organizations that have built long-term success on risk taking? I would be surprised to hear of one that I can not challenge. At first, organizations might find a great deal of success in risk taking. To maintain it, they need to show reliability in those risks paying off.

    It might be counterproductive to pick a single word, and while reliability might not be the best, maybe excellence isn't wither, since it assumes reliability.

    From a leadership standpoint, it's fun to play the word game, though. All leaders can say they value all virtues. But every leader has apparent priorities.