Treating Lowered Expectations

Too many years ago, I used to get a real laugh out of watching Mad TV’s “lowered expectations.” And while it’s funny, I don’t agree the same attitude should be used in our work as leaders. After all, we’re supposed to be sources of positivity and optimism, not the “downers.” Nevertheless, I repeatedly see in my work how our own expectations become glass ceilings. Let’s consider these two real examples.

The Galloping Unicorn

In the first case, I was working with a VP of Engineering of a mid-stage startup that wanted to improve the impact-per-engineer in his organization (unsurprisingly). His natural inclination was to work on this in two-week increments, which is often the case. However, his bar for each of those process-iterations was relatively low. That’s how several months went by with him being very satisfied with having discussed options, holding a few team-wide meetings about this, and just kicking off the process. Yes, that wasn’t the only thing we worked on during that time, but this was his highest-profile issue, and even as I inquired about doing things faster, he thought this was the right rate. Many leaders would love to be in a position to kick off a process toward a healthier organization within a few months. Still, we can do better.

Contrast this story with another VPE I was helping. This time, we’re talking about a unicorn with an R&D team in the hundreds. Given how much bigger this company was, one wouldn’t be surprised to hear things were even slower here, but that wasn’t the case. My client’s intrinsic “speed of change” was higher, and therefore even though we worked on things in the same two-week iterations, things were being done much faster. Within six weeks, we had decided on a reorg that he was procrastinating on for months, laid out the game plan, and by the 3-month mark, his department was already past the tough parts, and a real improvement was seen in the “field.”

By the way, this is why I do not automatically agree with those people looking for “smaller companies” because they want to see rapid progress. Often, the slowness is not a result of the organization’s size but of the leadership’s lackadaisical rhythm.

Avoiding Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Now, I’ve written in the past about how certain cultural changes require calendar time. There’s a limit to how much you can effectively accelerate some transitions. Therefore, I’ll be the first to say that you shouldn’t aim to accomplish whatever change you have within a few weeks. That said, we should realize that our own pace as leaders reflects on the entire team. As we know from Parkinson’s and Hofstadter’s laws, moving swiftly is at least partially grounded in how much time we think things should take.

Here are some ways that you can start raising your personal bar and get out of the “lowered expectations” loop:

  1. Embrace an Agile Mindset: The principles of Agile are not just for your development team. As a leader, adopting an Agile mindset means being open to change, embracing uncertainty, and being committed to continuous improvement. You must be flexible and adaptive, always looking for ways to optimize and enhance your processes.
  2. Set Ambitious Goals: Don’t settle for incremental changes when radical ones are needed. Yes, it’s good to celebrate small wins, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Set ambitious, even audacious, goals for your team and yourself. This will force you to challenge your own expectations and push your limits. Only when we allow ourselves to imagine that an audacious goal is achievable can we come up with innovative ways to actually get there.
  3. Embrace Failure as a Learning Opportunity: Too often, the fear of failure slows us down. But failure is an essential part of growth and innovation. When you embrace failure as a learning opportunity, you create a culture that’s more willing to take risks and try new approaches, which can lead to faster and more impactful changes.
  4. Create a Sense of Urgency: Establish a clear and compelling reason for the change. This sense of urgency can energize your team and drive them to achieve results faster. Remember, urgency doesn’t mean panic; it means recognizing the importance and timeliness of the change and acting accordingly. Having deadlines is not bad, and actually stating in advance how much time a particular change is “worth it” for the organization can really help create this healthy urgency. This is something that I cover in my upcoming book, Capitalizing Your Technology which will be available for preorder in a couple of weeks. Subscribe below to stay up to date!

Breaking the cycle of lowered expectations starts with acknowledging that these limitations exist primarily in our minds. By raising our personal bars and adopting a mindset of continuous improvement and learning, we can not only accelerate the pace of change but also create more resilient and adaptable teams.