On Expectations

How often in our work — and in all our relationships, for that matter — do we neglect to articulate what we expect of ourselves and others? Alignment between expectations and performance is a cornerstone of morale. If someone makes pars all day but believes they’re expected to hit aces, they will quickly become discouraged. And if someone hits aces all day but feels unappreciated, they too will lose enthusiasm.

By Alec Pendleton, Big Ideas for Small Companies, powered by The MPI Group

A friend of mine once undertook the fraught task of teaching his wife to play golf. After spending time with her on the driving range, he decided that she was ready to try an actual game, so they set out to play a few holes together. He is an excellent golfer, and she was just beginning, so the first couple of holes were slow and frustrating for both of them — but they plugged away at it, and she made progress. The third hole was a Par 3, and a good chance to demonstrate to her a different part of the game. He stepped up to the tee, and promptly hit a hole in one, his first ever. He was, of course, ecstatic, jumping up and down, hooting and hollering, but after a minute or so he noticed his wife just standing there, unmoved by his extraordinary feat.

“Didn’t you see that?” he exclaimed. “Wasn’t that fabulous?” But she didn’t understand his excitement.

“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?” she asked.

Therein lies a lesson.

How often in our work — and in all our relationships, for that matter — do we neglect to articulate what we expect of ourselves and others? Alignment between expectations and performance is a cornerstone of morale. If someone makes pars all day but believes they’re expected to hit aces, they will quickly become discouraged. And if someone hits aces all day but feels unappreciated, they too will lose enthusiasm.

Do your co-workers know what you expect of them? Are they dreading a task you’ve given them because they think you’re expecting a finished product, when all you want is a rough draft? Have you told your teenage son how proud you are of that unexpected B+ on his term paper, or does he think you’re upset that he didn’t get an A?

Another element of expectations is their ability to improve results.

A group of colleagues and I were attending a seminar, and the leader challenged us to see how rapidly we could pass a ball through the hands of everyone in the group. We were split into two teams. Each team stood in a circle, and as soon as the clock started we passed the ball around the circle as rapidly as we could. After a couple of attempts, our team of six got it done in under ten seconds! We were a second or two ahead of the other team, and sure that we were winners. Then the leader told us that the record was under TWO seconds! So much for being winners! But then, with our expectations so radically changed, we rethought our strategy. On our next attempt, we stood much closer, and this time we formed our hands into a vertical pipe. We dropped the ball into the top of the pipe, and it fell to the ground, touching each hand as it passed. Under two seconds! Knowing what was possible had completely changed our expectations, which changed our approach to the problem, and improved our performance five-fold.

On a grander scale, a friend of mine was running a plant in Michigan for one of the major domestic automakers. His plant did a cultural exchange with one of the Japanese companies, wherein one of his managers spent a month in Japan and his counterpart spent a month in Michigan, to see what they could learn from one another. At the time, an important measure of excellence was inventory turns, or how little investment in inventory you needed to keep your business running smoothly. My friend had worked diligently to improve that statistic, and while he was proud to have doubled turns, from about six times a year to about twelve, he lamented to his Japanese guest that he seemed stuck at twelve. Try as he might, he couldn’t get above twelve. The Japanese manager responded sympathetically, saying they were stuck too. He said that try as they might, they just couldn’t get above 120 turns a year! In other words, the Japanese plant was able to operate with 90% less investment in inventory.

Obviously, my friend was doing something wrong. How many dollars do you have invested in inventory? Imagine what you could do with all the money you’d generate if you could free up 90% of that investment!

The point to both these stories is the same: to get to state-of-the-art performance, you first need to know what the state of the art is. You can spend a lot of effort — and a lot of money —improving an existing process by inches, but before you do, it would be good to know if someone else is accomplishing the same process with a radically different approach. Maybe you need to start over, and learn a new way of approaching whatever problem you’re trying to solve.

It’s a good bet that hundreds of things in your organization, large and small, all the practices that have become embedded over the years, are constrained by low expectations. How long does it take to enter an order? Or to stock shelves? Or to prepare a shipment? Every business — and every family — has countless rituals that are performed daily without a thought. What if they were newly examined? What if you set out to find established best practices for every little thing that your organization does every day? My guess is that your expectations would change, that you’d find a lot of improvements to make, and that your performance would rise alongside your expectations.

Find more of Alec’s work at Big Ideas for Small Companies.

© 2017 Big Ideas for Small Companies is powered by The MPI Group

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