How to Get Ahead in this C-Average World

Prelude: When I started thinking about this post, I was very much in a cranky-old-man/what-is-wrong-with-people/ “well-if-I-ruled-the-world…” kind of place. But as I thought through it more, it became clear that it presents some real opportunities for managers. So be warned: the post itself follows this kind of a path. I’m starting off kind of ranty here, but stick with me – I hope to make it worth your while!

Lately I have been in more than one situation where someone wasn’t doing something as well as they could have been doing it. This is fine – we all have our limitations, nobody is perfect, and besides, we generally should avoid letting the perfect be the enemy of the good anyway!

The problem, however, was that there was basically no interest in doing it better.
We see this all over the place. Again and again I find myself sitting through a less-than-engaging presentation dominated by text-heavy powerpoint decks; there’s always a terrible data visualization or two floating around the office (heck, check out wtfviz.net if you want to see a hall-of-fame of bad visualizations); when was the last time anyone ever got training on how to interview job candidates?; and who knows how many managers basically try to “wing it” when giving feedback, doing annual reviews, delegating, etc. (I go into more detail about this concept in a previous post.)

No matter where you are, people are doing lots of things at a pretty mediocre level, and there doesn’t seem to be a pervasive urge to improve. (When my brother and I talk about the workplace, I often hear him explain this by saying “It’s a C-average world.”)

It’s completely nuts! How can we go to work every day and NOT ask the question “How can I make this thing better? How can I do this better? How can I be even better at whatever it is that I’m doing?”  Why does it seem to be that the default setting for most everyone is to be complacent with the way things are?

Maybe it’s laziness. Or lack of vision. Or maybe even misaligned rewards structures. (“What’s the point in really improving this? I won’t get recognition/a raise/promoted anyway…”) I have no idea what the root cause is. It’s probably some combination of these factors.

Can we do anything to address the problem? Can we find an opportunity to take advantage of the situation in some way?

Yes and yes.

Now don’t misunderstand me: I’m certainly not saying I know how to fix this. I don’t. But as a manager, I can use this understanding to alleviate this problem in my little corner of the workplace and beat “C-average” in the process. Here are two ways to do so:

     1. Hire those people who have a hunger for continuous improvement.

Some people are just kinda lazy; some don’t have a well-developed sense of “vision;” some rely on an extrinsic rewards structure to be motivated to work. Avoid those people at all costs.

Some people – a rare few – are always asking the questions: How can we improve this? How can I do a better job at X? These people have an internal drive to make everything – including themselves – better. They hunger for it; it motivates them. Find these people and hire them.

Not only will these folks help improve everything around them, just as a habit of their being, they likely will also influence others to do the same. Which brings us to my second point.

     2. Make continuous improvement part of the culture.

If you can hire someone who has this mindset, it will be a great step toward getting everyone thinking about continuous improvement. It will move the culture in the right direction.

However, hiring opportunities are preciously rare, and this is too big of a problem to simply wait to address. So we have to mold the clay given to us.

Make continuous improvement part of your culture by setting the expectation that everyone plays a part in making it happen. I have a coworker who requires everyone on his team to come to their weekly meeting with at least one idea of how they can do things better. They all agree that it is important, commit to doing it, and hold one another accountable for it. They have a wildly successful program, and there is no doubt that this plays a major role in that success.

Don’t want to implement this with your whole team/program? Too big of a change for you to try? Fine. Then try having one employee do this: At each of your weekly/monthly one-on-one meetings, require that they come with an idea about how to improve something, anything: a process, a report, some specific skill of theirs, the layout of their desk setup. It doesn’t really matter. You just need to start getting people into the habit of thinking about how things can be better.

What difference will of this make? Maybe not a ton at first, but its effect will surely be cumulative. Eventually, you (or your program) will rise to a B or A level, and in a C-average world, that will be a big deal.

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