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Mediocrity is the new black

Your productivity is impressive. Now stop it.

One sad truth exists in most companies. Management talks a great deal about fostering excellence within their organizations. In reality, most corporations breed mediocre performance rather than drive, innovation and excellence. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The virtue in most request is conformity.” Self-Reliance Essays: First Series (1841)

If Emerson said it, we know the urge to just fit in and be average has been around a while. Just as in his day, the true leaders are successful because they don’t settle for average.

This conforming condition is so prevalent it’s as though mediocrity oozes from every seam. Managers don’t know that’s what they are doing, and they never call it that. They use other phrases like “putting forth a consistent message,” “protecting the brand,” “maintaining professionalism,” “adhering to company policy,” “not rocking the boat,” etc. Those things are not bad in and of themselves, but all too often they are used as an excuse to stifle creativity, innovation and progress. Many employees try to do their best, only to find they are not supported in their efforts, or worse, they are even punished for suggesting improvements. We’re not suggesting that policies, rules and guidelines are not important – they are. But when good people feel the need to give up on excellence to fit into the organization, something is wrong. The difference is true leadership. Great leaders manage to maintain standards without getting stagnant.

The key is to be willing to change. In fact, recently a great leader described this way by a friend of his, “He hates to lose so much that he’s willing to change. Most people hate to change so much they are willing to lose.” There is a lot of truth in that statement.

A leader’s job is to help others reach their potential and succeed. It’s amazing at how many managers are surprised by this simple concept. Too many managers view the people that report to them as nothing more than additional resources to help complete the tasks at hand. They view it like having an extra printer to send print jobs to. Those type of managers don’t realize their role changes from worker bee to a facilitator and supporter of worker bees if they are to do the job well. They need to help others do things better, even if the way that works for them is different than the usual way things are done in the organization. To build on Emerson’s comment, conformity should not be the virtue in most request in your company.

To avoid mediocracy, you need to look for and reward exceptionalism. And that recognition should typically be in public. That way other employees realize that is what gets noticed. You may even need to put in a direct communication channel to the top of the organization for great ideas to flow through. Otherwise, the typical chain of command can kill great ideas because they don’t fit the status quo. Too many people value fitting in rather than change for improvement. Getting better by definition means changing, not conforming. Something to think about as you work on your company culture.


Nice idea, now go away.

The old saying that timing is everything is just plain true. I suppose that’s how it got to be such an old saying. In business, timing is critical in more ways than I can count. If you happen to be in the technology world, absolute truth changes about every six months. Miss a timing window and your great idea is old news and no one wants to hear it. A great marketing message in any business is completely uninspired if your competition uses it first. Even a great way to reward employees can look like a “me too” situation if others are doing it. In other words, timing matters.

As with most things in business, there are two sides to the coin. Get there too early and you are looked at as a nut job. Plus, you’ll have to be the one that does the heavy lifting of telling the world why this new idea matters. Too soon or too late and timing will eat your lunch every time.

Timing is especially tricky when dealing with investors. I can’t even count the number of funding presentations I’ve made on my great new idea, only to have a potential investor say, “Who else is doing this? We need proof that this will work.”

In most cases, if you are in a start up or a very small business, if someone else is doing it, then you are already too late. Often, if you’re not first to market, the only way to win is to outspend the competition. Trust me, investors don’t love that idea…even thought that is essentially what they are asking for when they ask for proof in the marketplace.

So when it comes to timing, if you can make a way cooler mouse trap and it’s clear mouse traps are still needed, then you are likely sitting in a great position. If you have a whole new idea that you want to spring on the world, don’t be surprised if others are skeptical. Sometimes, it comes down to faith – both in the idea and in you and your team’s ability to pull it off. You may just have to go with your gut. If you are wrong, you can lose big. But if you are right, you can potentially create a whole new business category that you dominate. This entrepreneurial stuff is not for the faint of heart. But don’t worry, we’ll get you a paper bag to breathe in if you need to catch your breath.


  • Timing
    Nice idea, now go away. he old saying...
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