Friday, March 24, 2017

Why Raise the Bar?


Image from Moore Leadership and Peak Performance: http://mooreleadership.blogspot.com/2012/04/leaders-set-and-raise-standards.html

A curious “Eureka!” moment happened to me one evening after dining at a Chinese buffet. It came with the help of a fortune cookie.

A what? Yes, a fortune cookie.

Let me backtrack a bit for context.

In recent months, I have gone through a few job interviews. If you remember what that is like, you may also recall the standard questions asked. One of which is your ideal work environment, the kind that supports your success.

While I have honest responses at the ready, still, going through this exercise with regularity has inevitably made me do a lot more introspection after each interview. Indeed, exactly what kind of environment has allowed me to thrive and thus, enabled me to contribute the most gains towards success?  I knew the answer was anchored in the push, the empowerment, and above all, the common mindset we shared, but I haven’t narrowed it down to a phrase or a word.

The answer came to me one evening after dining at a Chinese buffet, oddly, in a fortune cookie. It said:
“The nice thing about standards is, there are so many to choose from”.

Aha! There it is-- standards. We can lower them or raise them.

For me, it was about an environment that encouraged the “raising of the bar”.  A key value, embodied in simple phrase, that has the potential to help us positively influence ourselves, our relationships, our communities...and the world (yes, I went there). Evaluating if solutions to a problem are the best possible for the most favorable outcomes. Questioning if the “given” is still relevant or accurate vis-a-vis the current situation. Applying oneself to a project to deliver the objective in the most optimal manner.
But why? Why raise the bar? Why not work to the minimum standard? Surely, that standard has been tested and deemed sufficient to generate the result desired, yes? Perhaps. Or not. Therefore...
First, by raising the bar, we resolve to do better, to be better. We pursue self-development to enhance ourselves. When is it time to learn something new? When is it time to let go of the old and consider the new? To become the best version of ourselves? Learn new skills? Neither plan to be second best nor be tricked to selling ourselves short. These are extremely demanding times and only by continuously improving can we honor our gifts.

Second, by raising the bar, we become agents of change. Complacency is the antithesis of change. Always ask: “Is there a better way?” “What if?” We often speak of change as a concept of something so huge in scope, so overwhelming, so radical, we forget that before the scale was achieved, any change started from a smaller origin. Perhaps an alternative thought, a curious question, a divergent action--- that have gained critical mass and influenced a collective consciousness. Studying the downfall of Kodak, experts ultimately attribute it to a failure to change at the right time. Yet, I thought it can just as easily have been addressed. if there was a single executive in the room who said: “Yes, but what if?”

Third, by raising the bar, we distinctly brand ourselves as the professional who really strives to make a positive difference. We stand out. We are the individuals in the room, in our communities, who, through thought, words and actions, ignite more thoughtful thinking. The one who steps out of that comfort zone. Works smarter. Prepares better. Shows up more. Delivers more. Asks stimulating questions. More importantly, proactively proposes solutions.

Finally, we think outside of ourselves. Ours is an interconnected world; every part comprises the whole. We do not only need scholars and intellectuals. We need passionate and compassionate individuals. We find a cause we believe in and actively support it.

From my humble experience, I can say that one of the most inspiring, difference-making mindsets I have found in dynamic workplaces is that which pushes its team members to expect more of themselves and of possible solutions to a challenge. Not as a stressful mandate, but primarily one that comes from a place of authentic belief in the employee’s capabilities. Raising the bar begets a work ethic inspiring innovative thinking, encouraging the application of oneself towards improvement. Raising the bar necessitates an inquisitive and open mind to possibilities. 

But, be careful that you do not question for the sake of questioning. Strive to be an authentic outlier. Shake things up with a real, positive purpose.  
Insightful read: Outliers: The Story of Success

The former American writer, reporter, and political commentator Walter Lippmann once said: "When all think alike, no one thinks very much." See Groupthink (Communication Theory)

Think about that.