Lower the Bar

Lower the Bar

I’d never met a composer before, but had the pleasure on Sunday of meeting David Winkler.  David’s composition “Winds of Time,” was premiered at Michigan State University with violinist Dmitri Berlinksy conducting the chamber orchestra.  David is the husband of my friend Kathi Elster, who is co-author of the acclaimed book Working for You Isn’t Working for Me. We had brunch together.  We seasoned the food and peppered David with questions about how a composer imagines a piece, develops it, and how he interfaces with the conductor.  Although his work is more complicated and intricately developed, I couldn’t help but think that it parallels that of a coach, a general, perhaps a CEO.  He develops a complex plan that others must execute.  We smiled at his stories of how hard it is to “let go” as he hears musicians not quite appreciate and execute his full artistic intent.

“I have to write for people,” he said, fully appreciating how obvious that probably sounded.  He explained that one of the things he has learned to do is to write lines of music that let a musician ease into the work.  He knows he will ask them to execute very difficult technical dimensions, so he wants them to get there with ease and momentum.  The point he made echoed one I’d just read in Dan and Chip Heath’s excellent new best-seller Switch: How To Change Things When Change is Hard.

The Heaths’ book brims with research, great stories and this seminal image:  Our brains experience a battle for control, where our logical side, which they refer to as the Driver, must battle the need, passion and fear-driven emotional side of our minds.  They call this side the Elephant, and you can imagine which side wins all too often.  Consider the battle in your head that occurs when an aromatic slice of your favorite Grand Traverse Pie Company pie is steaming before you:  does the Driver have a chance against the Elephant?  Here’s the point that the Heaths make, which like composer Winkler’s strategy in writing offers us so much sense when, as they say, “change is hard:”

“A business cliché commands us to ‘raise the bar.’ But that’s exactly the wrong instinct if you want to motivate a reluctant Elephant.  You need to lower the bar.  Picture taking a high-jump bar and lowering it so far that it can be stepped over.  If you want a reluctant Elephant to get moving, you need to shrink the change.” (italics in original)

Our plans are for people.  Good to remember as you

Lead with your best self,


  • Good morning Dan,

    I think a person should learn to accept his or her limits. I think this will lower the bar allowing the “Elephant” to step across the thresoldwith ease.

    Making a change is not an easy thing to do. However, when a change is made your eyes will open to the differences.This my friend, I would like to refer to as “Wisdom”.

    Thomas K. Burke- Mentor

  • Hey Dan,

    That was an interesting article with not so subtle imagery of the Elephant. I assume this was written with the Republican opposition to the current health care bill being pushed in Washington by the opposing side. In my short time on Earth I have found that not all change is good – especially when it wreckless, overcomplicated and the resources needed to make those changes are already stretched to the breaking point.

    Mr. Winkler’s ideas on helping people meet change are good ones and I think all sides, those who develop new ideas and those who must implement them, should look at them in earnest. Thanks again for sharing your interesting ideas and insights on “leading with your best self”.

  • “Ease and momentum,” instructs the composer may be an apt model of persuasion for the elite crowd. It is nice that that is still ok. Yet I suspect have been the method of the past, but unfortunately the present leaning business model of normal employment and business life are now much less comfortable places of reality. History may well tell us more in the decade we now confront. Likely the round up of the usual suspects will include luxuries we eagerly enjoyed during the Bush era of tax cuts. Ironically made possible by reconciliation votes in the US Senate along with funding wars off the books and a rush to gut the social safety net we now can not imagine as any realistic option are good causes for starters. Desperate millions who have been permanent losers of those polices fraught with lies and deceit during those heady eight years of fantasy based governance now make “ease and momentum,” obsolete. We are so far from optimal solutions that to lead with your best means you must now take what you get and be glad to get anything from here on out.

  • Not sure I agree with this one Dan…I was listening to radio while driving to work and it appears that the bar is so low that an idiot can walk accross it with ease. Fine music is not meant to be played by anyone, only those who have practiced for years perfecting their craft usually get it right-on, I am not ready to give a pass to those who do not practice daily as we lead our best down a slippery slope of no return. So, wake up the elephant and try asking a kangaroo to do the jumping next time. P.S. I hope you have spell check, I am so use to the technology spelling correctly for me that I am now out of practice, lol. As always, I enjoy your comments.

  • This seems like a perfect metaphor to me, perhaps because I work with performing artists, and I see how they work with students. The process is largely about challenging them enough to keep them engaged, without overwhelming them so that they cannot succeed.

    I disagree with Robert, I think fine music can be played by anyone with passionate desire – and a teacher who understands how to harness that passion.

    • Ok, Joni, ask you child to play a peice that she/he never practiced and tell me how it sounds. I do appreciate your perspective, Dan is a good friend, and I love to challenge him from time to time to keep him sharp.

  • I really like this idea of lowering the bar for our big lumbering internal elephants. It made me think about how I coach people who are terrified of pursuing a cherished goal:
    you have to break down the big goal (high bar) into smaller, manageable steps. I think we can say that a lowered bar that we practice jumping over a few times, can gradually be raised.
    Thanks, Dan.

    • Katherine,
      The Heaths actually talk about some very illogical advice on debt reduction. They talk about an advisor who says take the particular credit card or debt that you can ELIMINATE, even if it’s NOT your highest-interest rate debt. This advisor argues that the win is more important. Get one debt dead and gone. It’s purely an elephant strategy.
      The low bar gets us moving. The high bar, we stare at, or just turn and walk away from.

  • Hi Dan:
    That bit of advice is very insightful and doable. It’ll help me help myself & others in battling or should I say -sparring with- our elephants. Baby steps leading to a great walk!
    Keep up the good work.

  • Another look at this is illustrated in Dan Pink’s book: “A Whole New Mind” – he talks of Left & Right brained thinking, and how we’re going to have to exercise our artistic thinking and get it to work more with our logical thinking. There is much more to the book, so read it if you get a chance. I’m not doing it justice here.

  • Thanks for sharing your insight. Too often people avoid things that they perceive as too hard (or too high). Setting the goals to be manageable and attainable yet challenging is…challenging!
    I’ll check out the book “Switch”. I enjoyed their book “Stick”. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • I was struck in two ways by the concept: “shrink the change.”
    First, it comes across as the opposite of Jack Welch’s advice that “incremental goals challenge no one.” Perhaps it is the goals that should be large and bold, but the steps toward them incremental.
    Second, the issue of the day is health reform. Should federal poicy makers “shrink the change?” To really make a difference, it really would take a big, comprehensive change. But to get something adopted, will it have to be incremental, moving toward the larger goal?

    • Vern,

      Great observations. On health care, I think your comment is especially astute. When polls say people want the congress “to start all over,” I have real doubts. Do people really have any serious idea what’s in that bill? (I confess I don’t know enough to make a really intelligent decision.) Oh, they’ve heard about the Nebraska sweetheart move for Senator Nelson, but do people really know how this proposed new system works?

      No, but they do know it’s well over a thousand pages. So, it’s easy to play to their fears that this is just TOO BIG and scary!!!! The Elephant balks – no matter that 33 million will be insured and the cost is not THAT much. It’s just one big honking change and things could go wrong.

      So, one could argue for a “shrink the change” strategy. Both the president and the Republicans will claim that they are doing that (although insuring 33 million’s a little more than just stepping over a bar; it’s a leap by any stretch). And on the other hand, going the Republican way, e.g., only tort reform is also a strategy to derail a once-in-a-generation attempt at serious reform. Will we ever get back to taking a jump at that bar if we put it on the ground and merely take a little step over?

      I suspect the Dems will move the Elephant, which may in turn rear back in November. But there are lots of other good lessons in the Heath book on getting the Elephant to move. For example, pointing to genuine successes can sure help! Let’s hope they use the whole bag of tricks. The rational Driver’s sure not enough.

      Thanks for the good thought-starter, Vern.


      • This is a good situation for evaluating: cost to stay the same? Unacceptably high! Cost of incremental change that would delay real, effective change because experts advise that research shows incremental won’t and cannot work? Incalculable, because costs under the old system will continue to climb! Comprehensive change when we’re not sure if / how it will work, even though it probably won’t be perfect the first time around? Well… the best of three lousy options, or so I believe… That’s the way things often work. You don’t get to choose between black and white. You get to decide which is the least dark among a bunch of ugly greys.

  • GREAT article and insight today, Dan! As Dr. Robert Schuler always said, “Inch by inch, everything’s a cinch!” 🙂 Sometimes, you can’t go all five miles at once. But if you have the resources (a lamp unto one’s feet, as scripture says) to take one footstep, then you take it. Then you can see your way to take the next step. Take enough such steps and eventually, you’ll get to where you want to go!

    Those viruoso musicians didn’t get to where they’re going by not challenging themselves. Of course they did! No one can say how long it took them, how many hours of practice, to master that grace note timing or whatever. That’s up to them. The ones who become virtuoso do what they have to do to get where they want to get, however they need to.

    …and so do we all, one inch or one kangaroo bounce at a time. The question is not how big the steps, but how many we need to take, and are willing to take, to complete the journey.

    There are lots of ways to get over barriers. Who cares if some take the ramp while others can climb the steep steps? If the steep steps or the length of the ramp cause discouragement, the journey ends. If trying to pole vault over that hurdle causes injury, we may give up. Better to take it however we need to, balancing ability with motivation. Just keep on keepin’ on!!!

    …or so I believe.

  • I think Charlie Rangel, Democrat, NY, has done a great job in lowering the bar. Speaking of the bar, I saw a photo of Rahm Emmanuel schmoozing Mrs. Pelosi from behind, obviously to her delight. He was probably seeking to catch a flight to anywhere with her to have a few drinks from her AF-III well equipped (at taxpayer’s expense) bar.

  • Dan,

    I like the idea of the “moveable” bar. Elephants are trained as babies with a small stake and light rope to stay put. Later, although the full grown elephant has the capacity to rip both rope and stake out of the ground, they never test it. Perhaps this is a danger in lowering the bar consistently for any elephant. If the driver cannot make the elephant test the stake, it will never move…a captive to the way things have always been, no matter how weak the reasons.

    I say raise the bar, but raise it slowly in small incremental steps. It is not the raising that is wrong, it is the typical American propensity to go for gold on the first try. During the olympics it was noted that the gold medalist was happiest because he or she won it all. The silver medalist was miserable because he or she compared performance with the gold medalist and came up short — i.e., was defeated in his or her own mind, despite the great accomplishment. However, the bronze medalist was happier than the silver medalist — why? Because he or she made the podium — the target was different and the step was lower. It was still a great achievement to reach the podium, but the bar was not quite as high in the first place.

    I take this point of view, because sometimes, we have no control over the size of the change being required. We cannot shrink the change, but maybe we can increase the number of steps the bar is raised and make each step a bit smaller. Someone who has won the bronze may find it easier to achieve (and accept) a silver in the next competition. Someone who has won both bronze and silver may find going for the gold less intimidating and approach the final hurdle with experience and consistent confidence from smaller successes.

    The point of view is important. There must be a challenge to result in a success. There must be a success to result in motivation for the next step.

  • Dan,

    I appreciate the scenario. But we must always remember to ramp it up. Once you start low, you must challenge the elephant by steadily raising the bar. Another animal analogy I enjoy is the story of training Shamu. Each time training begins for a new whale to leap out of the water and over the bar to ooh and aah the crowd, trainers begin the bar not on the surface of the water or even five feet below, they begin by placing the bar on the floor of the pool. This guarentees the whale will succeed and be rewarded. After the easy win which acclimates the whale, the bar is slowly but steadily raised to challenge the whale to greater feats of height. The trick is to not just begin leading where people are but steadily raise the until they push themselves to their best.

  • Dan, brilliant insight. We who desire to draw others to their own greatness need to remember that greatness can be overwhelming when seen from the outside. By first drawing a person into its simple beginnings, we give them the opportunity to discover it from within, where it is not imposing, but embracing. I have a granddaughter who as an infant was easily startled. Gentle love has invited her to grow courageous.

  • >