Systematizing Mediocrity, Rinse/Repeat: no mistakes allowed.

In many companies, we say we want performance and for people to grow and improve – we spend a ton of money and effort on this. But, are we actually super busy systematizing mediocrity? Possibly. 

In many companies, the current reality is there is no room for mistakes, therefore there is no room for “better”. We may say that it’s ok to make mistakes but we reward playing it safe, 100% sure thing successes, and slam dunking glossy presentations. 

In this situation, there is no room for improvement of anything, including performance. You are where you are and no matter how many levers you pull or how accountable you hold people or how refined your measures are… you’re headed to the same location you are now. By choosing this path with no mistakes, your best option is to learn to love mediocrity. You’re actually building it into performance, into work, into culture, into leadership, into the very fabric of your company. 

With no room for mistakes, there is no room for innovation, none. It’s not possible to “innovate – aka experiment and try something new” that is a “sure thing”. So even though companies say repeatedly they want innovation, when there can be no mistakes, people actually behave in the spirit of: “Do what you’re doing today, play it safe, cover your ass, live another day. Rinse repeat.” 

It’s amazing to think that with a couple tweaks, the whole world could change. People could thrive and bring their best to work, companies could perform, bureaucracy could be reduced or eliminated, people could actually enjoy work. Seems like a long way from reality, but there’s no doubt it can change if we choose to make it happen. 

Some tips & tricks if you want move away from systematizing mediocrity into performance: 

  • Enable psychological ownership and decision-making so people are accountable to “doing it better” instead of just “doing it right”.
  • Enable people to own and create their own path to performance – to find their way through small experiments to get to the destination. Everyone is different and humans operate best with some control of their own destiny. Other people are not carbon copies of You. 
  • If you’re thinking “you’re an idiot, we can’t have people making colossal mistakes”, you’re on the right track; these experiments, the risks need to be small and quite safe to try. 
  • Leaders need to make mistakes and talk about them. If a leader cannot make a mistake, the whole organization is so busy proving “how good it is” that it is too preoccupied by reinforcing current status and is not “getting better” at anything… 
  • You learned to ride a bike not by watching a video or talking about it or having someone tell you what to do; you learned by doing it, failing, succeeding, failing again, and getting more and more competent – apply this to work. 

The stretchier the goals, the more room people need to experiment and make mistakes – not just with “stuff”, but with “how they show up”, “how they lead”… because if it’s stretchy, what they’re doing today is not going to get us to the new destination. More of what we’re doing today is guaranteed to keep us “right here”. 

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