Even great systems can fail. When that happens, if we’re not committed to the purpose the system serves over the system itself, we can end up prisoners of our own creations. We become masters enslaved by our servants.
It happens everyday. An accounting procedure that is meant to keep the company in business can keep an office manager from making much needed purchases. A board that is established to protect the mission of a non-profit can develop a political agenda that hamstrings the organization it is meant to serve.
Or, standards and judging in a Crossfit competition that are supposed to help find the fittest athletes in a region could knock an obvious Games contender out of the race completely.
On Friday, June 4th, during the final heat of the final event of the day in the 2011 Mid-Atlantic Crossfit Regionals, in the lane closest to the stands and facing the entrance of the George Mason University Fieldhouse, the unbelievable happened.
AJ Moore, who had finished 1st, 2nd, and 2nd on the three prior events, failed to even finish the 100’s event before the time-cap after being no-repped about sixty times on his kettlebell swings. Looking down the line of athletes as they sent their kettlebells flying upward, it was easy to see the disparity in judging. The first off the pull bars, AJ had been the first to start the kettlebell swings. But that is where he stayed as athlete after athete—every single athlete on the floor, in fact—passed him and moved on to double-unders and then to overhead squats.
AJ Moore, ranked 35th in the world (ahead of last year’s Games 1st place champion) in the Open, finished not only last in his heat for that event, but last in his region. Every other individual male competitor at the Mid-Atlantic Regional beat AJ Moore in that event.
A testament to his elite fitness, AJ still went on to finish 2nd and 6th place in the next two events. All other factors being the same, if AJ had finished even 5 places ahead of dead last in the 100’s event, he would have stood on the podium at the Mid-Atlantic Regional and now be on his way to the Games.
And so on June 4th, 2011, in Fairfax, VA, the faithful machine tasked with systematically identifying the fittest athletes from seventeen world regions experienced a glitch: it missed one.
That weekend we turned on the machine and it began doing exactly what it was made to do, but somehow, right in the middle of the process, there was a massive hiccup, and the system ended up knocking away one man who blatantly, unquestionably, must be present at any contest claiming to crown the fittest of the fit.
The system’s glitch was related to precision and accuracy—not the way we conversationally define them, where they can be used synonymously, but according to their scientific definitions.
Say you throw five darts at a dartboard and hit the same spot each time: that’s precision. You might have hit a spot that is on the circle farthest from the bull’s eye, but the point is you sent all five of those darts to the exact same place. You were consistent.
Say, on the other hand, that you throw five darts that each land somewhere in the bull’s eye circle: that’s accuracy, even if those five darts were scattered all over the bull’s eye.
To deliver the fittest athletes to the Games, we need a system of standards and judging that is both accurate and precise. Accuracy is when AJ’s judge holds faithfully to the standards—the no-rep dart hits the bull’s eye. Precision is when the system of judging as a whole holds all competitors to equal standards—all no-rep darts thrown by Mid-Atlantic judges hit the same place on the target (hopefully, the bull’s eye).
When a judge in Australia throws the no-rep dart, it needs to hit the exact same point that AJ’s judge hit when she threw about sixty of them. For that matter, when one Mid-Atlantic Regional judge throws a no-rep on a kettlebell swing, he needs to hit the exact same place as any of the other judges who stood in the GMU fieldhouse on June 4th.
Usually, the system works. But what about in the case of AJ Moore?
What happens when one judge is significantly more stringent than the other judges, and what happens if this judge makes a significantly greater impact on his or her athlete than the other competitors’ judges do on them? And what happens if this all occurs among the most elite competitors in an entire region? What happens if an imprecision in the system affects its ability to accurately select a region’s fittest athletes?
What happens is, nothing.
Nothing, that is, unless someone or something outside the system that contains the error steps in to correct that error. Systems don’t fix themselves. In the world of software, anytime an issue comes up that challenges the software’s ability to do what it was meant to do, someone who understands the system re-writes the code and releases a software update. If a system makes an exceptional error, then it is ethical and respectable for something outside that system to override it.
When a system we create fails to accomplish its task, there is no need to criticize the system or bemoan the failure. We need only to change the system and find a new way to accomplish our task.
The task of the Mid-Atlantic Crossfit Regional was to send the fittest athletes from the region to the Games. If AJ Moore is one of the top three fittest athletes in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and if a system error is the reason he did not stand on the podium on Sunday, June 6th, then we need a new way to send AJ Moore to the 2011 Crossfit Games.