The third “R” is Rigor.
And brother, this is a hard one to write about – at least for me.
Ask anyone what the term means and you will get several variations of the same thing: Rigor is hard – or in the words of George W. Bush, “This is hard work!
Dictionary.com defines the term as: (noun)
- Strictness, severity or harshness, as in dealing with people
- The full or extreme severity of laws, rules, etc.
- Severity of living conditions; hardship; austerity; the rigor of wartime existence
- A severe or harsh act, circumstance, etc.
- Scrupulous or inflexible accuracy or adherence: the logical rigor of mathematics
No matter how you define it, it doesn’t sound like much fun, does it?
Various pictures fly through my mind when I think of the term – like an ancient monk seated before a priceless manuscript, copying it by hand. One slip of the pen and it’s start over again, pal.
Talk about pressure.
Maybe it’s the relentless attention to a regimen of practice such as pursued by the golfer Lee Trevino or the Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams. Both were so committed to their craft that they would hit balls day and night until their hands bled.
That particular concept of rigor was described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers, in which he posited that if you want to get really, really good at something – perhaps even great – you have to put in at least 10,000 hours of practice.
Practice? Are we talking about PRACTICE?
Yes we are, and lots of it.
But practice, or long hours of hard work, is only one element of what constitutes the rigor that leads to excellence. I believe there are four other components. They are:
- Adherence to a routine or plan
- Unwillingness to settle for anything short of the optimal result or solution
Focus: In the context of this article, “Focus” refers to the ability to define an issue that is being addressed in the most finite and confined detail – right down to the gnat’s eyelash. The narrower and more defined the focus is relevant to an issue, the more likely the issue can be isolated and resolved. There is a vast difference between “vision” and focus. In the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy had the vision of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, but it took the focus of the scientific community to turn that concept into a reality.
Organizations demonstrate focus when they clearly lay out a narrow direction for their organization and resolve to adhere to that course of action.
Discipline: Discipline goes hand in hand with focus. Once the problem or issue has been clearly and narrowly defined, what is needed next is the discipline to identify the steps necessary to complete in order to reach the stated goal or outcome and the willingness to stick with the problem until it is solved. In my opinion, discipline is genetic. I believe that people are born with the capacity for discipline or they are not. Everyone has heard the story of the grasshopper and the ant. The grasshopper played while the ant worked – storing up food for the winter. Ultimately, the grasshopper found himself unprepared when hard times hit. On the “grasshopper-ant continuum,” I am a grasshopper. I have scores of excellent ideas every day, but seldom are those ideas accompanied by the discipline to see them through to completion. As a matter of fact, this very article (since it represents a topic that I am not very knowledgeable about) represents a test of my own self-discipline. By completing it, I will have exceeded my own expectations!
Organizations demonstrate discipline when, after they have identified what they are going to focus on, they provide the resources and support to pursue them to completion.
Adherence to a routine or plan: One of the key features of rigor is structure or operational methodology. The approach may vary. Thomas Edison, in his pursuit of the perfect element for the incandescent electric bulb (he did not invent it, he made it practical), utilized research and experimentation. In his Menlo Park facility, he and his crew kept at the problem relentlessly until it was solved. Theirs was an iterative methodology. Legend has it that it took 10,000 tries before they solved the issue, and Edison is purported to have said that he did not fail 9,999 times, but had been working on a problem that required 10,000 steps.
Albert Einstein, on the other hand, relied on visualization to solve complex problems. He was able to visualize everything from start to finish, including the visualization of complex mathematical formula.
Two famous men with two vastly different methodologies, but each followed his plan and method every time.
Organizations demonstrate this adherence to a plan or routine when they purposely chart the course of action(s) to be taken, then adhere to them to completion.
Unwillingness to settle for anything short of the optimal result or solution: You could call this “stubbornness” or “commitment,” depending on how kind you are. I am reminded of Dr. Seuss’ Horton the elephant, who sat in a tree on a nest keeping an egg warm – long after the devious bird that laid it had deserted him. He stuck to his task and saw it through, saying, “ I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, 100%.”
There is simply no substitute for total commitment coupled with an unwillingness to fail.
Companies like Apple demonstrate this trait. They set the bar ridiculously high and then doggedly (or is it “elephantly”) refuse to settle for less that their goal.
Of all the “Rs,” rigor is by far the least glamorous, yet in reality, it is surpassed by no other.
As George said: “It’s hard work!”