"We have what we have." This unusual sentence made a huge impression on me. Which is no easy task these days, bombarded as we are by endless feeds of unfiltered news and status updates. It is for this very reason that I place such store in this tenet. That it made its way from a former special forces soldier via the 2003 Tour de France to settle in my memory bank came as a surprise to me. But that must be because it works!
When the bike chain falls off
The source of this principle is former Danish special forces soldier B.S. Christiansen, who was affiliated with the Danish cycling team in 2003, Team CSC, as a team builder. The team's grueling winter training had just one focus: success at Le Tour. That goal set the tone for whether the season would be considered good or bad. The star on the team, Tyler Hamilton, was the key to the entire team's success in the world's toughest and most high-profile cycling race. Hamilton was the one everybody rode for, fetched water for and sacrificed themselves for, from the very first kilometer on the country roads of France.
Then disaster struck in the very first stage of the race. Hamilton crashed and broke his collarbone. And as any cyclist knows, that is (almost) as bad as a broken leg.
Hamilton's unfortunate crash didn't just break his collarbone - it broke the whole team.
Everyone who followed the Tour de France could sense - in the daily comments from the team leaders, the sports directors and the cyclists themselves - the devastation, self-pity and disappointment emitting through the TV and into our living rooms.
In his book Et liv på kanten (Living on the edge), B.S. Christiansen describes what happened to the cycling team: They suddenly lost sight of the goal. Everything went black. Nothing had meaning. They couldn't get back up on their bikes.
They were overwhelmed by the injustice, which became a justification for any lack of initiative. Both the cyclists themselves and the entire team fell apart. All the training and planning seemed meaningless to them. And all because of a broken collarbone, which wasn't even their fault.
Broken collarbones in organizations
Many managers, employees, entire departments and companies have experienced this type of collapse. Just think about the crises in the 00s, which pulled the rug out from under many a company, affecting their growth and in some cases their entire existence.
Think about the fates of the employees at the time - and of the managers tasked with guiding them through this new reality.
Managers and employees still struggle every day with demands for change that can seem, in the moment, insurmountable: The employee who is assigned extra work, but not given extra time to do it in. The manager who loses her three key employees all at once but whose targets aren't adjusted to compensate for the loss. The company that loses its biggest customer but is still required by its owners to generate the same profits. The front-desk personnel whose help systems fail, but who are still required to keep customers satisfied. The list of black holes seems almost inexhaustible. And haven't we all been there are some point?
The moment you lose faith and decide that there's no point getting back up on that bike, a vacuum develops where nothing of value can possibly happen. The external circumstances become the excuse and now they control your motivation, faith and hope. Apathy sets in and decisions are made only half-heartedly.
The employee wastes energy fighting for a smaller workload. The manager starts an organizational fight to steal employees from other departments. The company goes on the defensive in the public eye. And at the front desk, personnel excuse their inability to help with a perfunctory comment that the "system seems to be under the weather".
Just like the cyclists on Team CSC, the injustice takes center stage and everything seems to fall apart.
So how do we navigate situations like this? It takes a mental adjustment to start producing results again. And this is where the principle of "We have what we have" comes in.
Seeing the light
Back in 2003, B. S. Christiansen had a huge job ahead of him at the Tour de France - he had to change the mindset of the cyclists. He did this by telling them: "We have what we have". He helped them to understand and accept that you have to take action based on the reality you are faced with. And his efforts paid off.
In the moment of realization, the team was able to set new and meaningful goals. Goals that they could share, believe in and achieve. A new target to aim for. A new beginning. The team was motivated to perform based on the given conditions instead of complaining about their situation. The new goal made the injustice seem irrelevant, turning it into a sidebar to the new story. Team CSC performed as a team, shook off their apathy and rediscovered their will to sacrifice themselves for success and for each other.
The visible change in attitude had the added effect of making them known throughout Denmark as the team that refused to bow to adversity and disappointment. Everyone followed their struggle. They were heroes fighting against all odds. In the end, Team CSC surprised the world by winning three stages as well as the prestigious team competition, which wasn't actually part of their original goal. But it was an ambitious new goal. And it was a success.
Finding new meaning and recovering motivation
I always know when I'm among a group of managers or employees that feels devastated by a poor result or a difficult situation that's not their fault. The excuses pile up and the action plans become unambitious. But in those instances where I see managers who are clearly working with a full understanding of what they have to work with and acceptance of the conditions, they invariably come up with initiatives and targets that are meaningful.
An example of this is the difference between a manager who complains to their staff that the press is stupid and insensitive because they wrote something negative about the company and a manager who is capable of turning bad press into a genuine understanding in the individual employee of the role she plays in turning the bad press around. Like the front desk personnel who understand that the customer doesn't care whether the system is down. Instead, they use their common sense and customer service skills to keep the customer happy under the given circumstances.
So the next time you find yourself in a motivational black hole, think about what kind of cyclist you want to be. The one who gives up and never gets back up on that bike? Or the one who fetches water for Tyler Hamilton, knowing full well that he will never win the race?