What Holds You Back? Breaking Through That One Thing (TOT) Part I of IV


By Michele Parrish, Editorial Contributions by Norm Lanier, Ph. D.

A couple of years ago I started articulating the work I do as an executive coach as “helping brilliant people shine brighter.”   Yes, even the most brilliant people can grow. Our strengths are what make us shine, and there has been quite a rally in recent years to focus on strengths instead of weaknesses. StrengthsFinder by Marcus Buckingham has had a strong impact, along with a raft of strengths assessments tools. The reality, though, is that we all have limiters – the things that hold us back from shining our brightest and fulfilling our true potential.

In helping brilliant people shine brighter, a balanced approach is best. Yes, strengths are what make us shine, but limiters can dim that light, and in some cases, block the light all together.   We must know and leverage our strengths, and also prevent limiters from getting in the way of our progress toward major accomplishments and fulfillment in life. Strengths tend to be rather stable; however, limiters can and often do change with time and with role expectations. The classic “what got you here won’t get you there” often applies as executives are asked to step up and into larger leadership roles.

Theory of Constraints (TOC)

In my prior career in high technology manufacturing, I routinely leveraged a concept called the Theory of Constraints to break through barriers that stood in the way of maximum production output. I first learned the concept at MIT in a dual master’s degree program called Leaders for Global Operations. The best selling book by Eli Goldratt titled “The Goal” emerged as a must-read for operations managers worldwide. Breaking through barriers, whether to achieve greater operating efficiencies or to attain extraordinary financial results requires us to clearly identify and to address operational constraints. Might the same hold true regarding personal and professional development?

Wikipedia summarizes, “The theory of constraints is a management paradigm that views any manageable system as being limited in achieving more of its goals by a very small number of constraints. There is always at least one constraint, and the theory uses a focusing process to identify the constraint and restructure the rest of the organization around it. The theory adopts the common idiom ‘a chain is no stronger than its weakest link.’ This means that processes, organizations, etc., are vulnerable because the weakest person or part can always damage or break them or at least adversely affect the outcome.”

While humans aren’t manufacturing systems turning out widgets on a per minute basis, we do follow some of the same natural laws. I believe the Theory of Constraints does indeed apply to maximizing human potential. There is always a limiter. As striving professionals, we must determine our own limiters, if we wish to reach our potential.

What holds us back?

What stops us from getting to that next level of performance?

Do we have multiple limiters? If so, which one is critically holding us back in the now and where should we focus our improvements the most?

As I look back over my personal career, I can clearly see the limiters that presented themselves at different times. In college, I was shy until I learned to speak up. Class participation was critical to strong grades as an MBA student. As a young professional, I had to learn the technical side of my industry. Technical depth was paramount for advancing. As I advanced, leadership and influence became front-runners. With enough focus, these became strengths that I leveraged to run large organizations. By my early 30’s, I was accomplished and became somewhat overconfident in what I could make happen. Later, I had to learn the concept of “letting go,” that I couldn’t always control the outcome no matter how hard I worked. I had to accept that some forces were bigger than me. The lesson that presented itself, again and again, was that “letting go” in the right way and at the right time is actually a discipline. “Letting go” can also be a cathartic experience.   Learning this took years. Related to “letting go,” I gradually learned to lighten-up and find the humor in challenging situations.

Sometimes, a limiter comes back again and again, perhaps masquerading as something completely different from that behavior or belief that is, in fact, deeply rooted. For me, that one thing was doing too much myself — not asking for help soon enough or in the right ways. It sounds like another version of wanting to control the outcome. Asking for help is a form of “letting go” of the need to control everything oneself and learning to rely on others. When I felt myself running out of time, energy, or even ideas, it was time to invite others into the fold. The leadership skill that this embodied was “engaging others.” I had to practice stepping back and engaging others in ways that allowed them to contribute to my solution path and to my development as a person and professional.

By definition there is always only one main constraint that stands in the way of maximum production within an operation. In our own personal development, similarly there is but one top-level constraint, the one impeding progress the most. The key for personal and professional progress is to determine what “that one thing” is at the current point in time and burst through it. We call this creating a breakthrough.

That One Thing (TOT): A Methodology

 Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world, he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. What Einstein was alluding to is that the solution quality is proportionate to the problem statement clarity and accuracy. If we wish to really breakthrough our greatest limiter, we need to articulate and clearly understand that limiter in detail. That takes focus, analysis, and discipline. We may tend to apply these principles to other people and other situations outside of ourselves, but now it’s time to apply them to ourselves!

The Challenge

I have a challenge for you. Spend just 55 minutes trying to figure out “that one thing” for you. Start with self-inquiry. Grab a journal or an audio recording device. Answer this key question: What is holding me back from (insert what you want most – getting promoted, growing a business, being a better parent, etc.)?

Getting to “That One Thing (TOT)” may not be easy, and may not be doable in 55 minutes or even in the next few days. Analyzing and maintaining focus are necessary. As we reflect, as we begin to evaluate ourselves honestly and in-depth. We gain self-awareness by truly listening to feedback from others. We may need to “chunk up” several smaller observations to form a larger, more significant observation, “that one thing” that is holding us back most. Similarly, sometimes we may need to “chunk down,” to take a broad, general description of an area for improvement and figure out what it really means. This ongoing process of self-reflection requires tenacity but results in clarity and sets the stage for breakthrough.

In my experience, common limiters for executives and business owners include:

  • Leadership (one or several aspects of leading self or others)
  • Interpersonal Skills/Emotional Intelligence
  • Strategic/Tactical Balance
  • Executive Presence
  • Focus/Prioritization

For you, does “that one thing” fall into one of these buckets? If so, what two or three things are under that heading that you can honestly admit need focus?

Next time, I will expand on the process for identifying “That One Thing (TOT).” As Einstein emphasized, defining the problem is a critical part of effective problem solving. Defining and sharing TOT is a critical step leading to breakthrough in personal performance!

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