From sex to deodorants the push is for peak performance. The message is, “If you aren’t number one then there is something wrong.” After all, isn’t it important to be the biggest, fastest, or strongest? The answer is, to use the classic project management answer, “It depends.” Let’s look at peak performance, its costs, its misuse, and a realistic alternative.

What Is Peak Performance?

Peak performance as used here might best be defined with an example – the successful return of the Apollo 13 astronauts. From the time the oxygen tank ruptured on April 14, 1970, until landing on April 17, roughly 87 hours passed of intense activity. The mission was deemed a successful failure.

It would be an understatement to say considerable teamwork, focus, persistence, and ingenuity were required. Essentially, the stakeholders involved dropped everything they were doing to focus on solving the myriad of problems the tank explosion created. A new balance point had to be created centered around the successful return of the astronauts. The integrity of the mission literally had a hole blown in it!

What Does It Cost?

What does peak performance in such a situation cost? In a word – everything. With Apollo, hard deadlines had to be met and resources were scarce. Everything else was secondary and viewed only in terms of its utility in saving the astronauts.

Its Misuse

There is no doubt the mission was noble. But are there limits to peak performance. The difficulty arises when peak performance is misused. The flaw can be shown in a term I’ve coined, “mesa performance,” where a mesa is similar to a plateau. With mesa performance a peak is hit and sustained. Most of us hear it as “setting the bar higher.” I prefer mesa performance because when setting the bar higher one jumps over the bar and then there is a coming back down to normal levels. You can see the subtlety of the misuse of peak performance in the expectation of staying at that level. It is the new standard. Phrases start creeping in like, lean-and-mean, setting the standard for the industry, etc. We can be told we are above everyone else and will stay there. It’s no longer a peak, its a mesa.

To put it in perspective, imagine after the astronauts returned safely everyone was breaking out the cigars and champagne, slapping each other on the back and celebrating. In the middle of this Gene Kranz, the flight director, said, “Oops, we forgot to tell you. Apollo 13.1 is having problems and we need to get on it right away! You did well with 13 so we expect you can do the same with 13.1.” Already, no one has slept for 3 days and now a similar challenge is presented.

When this becomes business-as-usual you know where it is headed. It can be summed in one word, unsustainable. Remember how everything was viewed as a resource with Apollo 13? Ongoing consumption of everything including reserves and backups has several major downside characteristics. People burn out and start making serious mistakes, the wiggle room for different options disappears with the drop in resources. The organization cannibalizes itself. The list goes on.

A More Realistic Option

A more realistic approach is one that is sustainable. One that avoids excessive overtime. You might recall “overtime” means going beyond a certain reasonable limit of effort causing the wearing out or consumption of infrastructure. Overtime is best when it is limited, has a specific goal in mind and is stopped once that goal has been reached. Time to refresh is provided.

To create sustainability planning is required, planning which includes sufficient risk reserves that will get consumed from time to time. With good planning flexibility and the ability to meet customer needs are maximized…and the team gets to sustain and work another day!