How do we innovate when mediocrity is so readily abundant and quite frankly, acceptable? This question has been continually weighing on the mind of my business partner Rick and I. I know I am opening Pandora’s Box here since this is a very deep subject which certainly deserves more than one post, so I plan to explore this topic over several posts.
One aspect of this which immediately jumps to mind is when Jim Collins profoundly opens his book, Good to Great, with the statement, “good is the enemy of great.” He explains why we don’t have great schools, government, businesses or lives (as is often the case) only because we are perfectly satisfied with just “good enough” schools, government, businesses and lives. He was spot on. We as a race are predominantly satisfied with mediocrity, with the average. In fact, one of our favorite questions we always want to know is, “what is the average?”
We don’t think of it as bad, but rather a foundation for making a comparison. Where do we fall with the average? That is the baseline by which we measure ourselves. We certainly wouldn’t want to measure ourselves with the outlier. I’m afraid we are “addicted to the Bell Curve” when it comes to looking for ways to measure and compare. If we are slightly better than average we think of ourselves as pretty good. But more importantly, if the comparison criteria lumps us in with the average we still feel good about ourselves because while we are not great, we are pretty good. We are average. There are no alarms going off in our heads when we are average. BUT THERE SHOULD BE- especially when it comes to innovation!
When I worked for M.A. Mortenson in Los Angeles, I had a boss by the name of Derek Cunz. He loved to use the word “unacceptable.” He said it all the time – and with directness. If you didn’t perform to his standard, he confronted you and told you the performance was unacceptable. If something was getting behind schedule, even if there was a legitimate reason for it, it was unacceptable. He did not tolerate mediocrity or even the step above mediocrity. He demanded another level of me, of our subcontractors, and of himself. He wasn’t demeaning, just straightforward. That is how the entire team, from the top down, approached this project. At the time the comment irritated me, not so much now.
Average just wasn’t an option. It wasn’t an option because what we were building wasn’t average. It was the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and designed by architect Frank Ghery. Check it out. Building it was a monumental task and utilized the most cutting edge technology. It was one of the hardest projects I ever worked on and I was just a lowly field engineer. But it made me proud. For those three years I was part of something not average, but something extraordinary. People still walk by it and stare – even I still do!
I look at those three difficult years as some of the most beneficial to my development. I want that same experience for our people. More than anything, I want our team to think of what they are doing as extraordinary, an outlier amongst mediocrity. This desire falls directly in the path of our struggle to be innovative as a culture in our company. How do we erase the satisfaction of the mediocre? It isn’t easy – but it can be done! Satisfaction is a state of mind. Changing it to something extraordinary is the key. How are you doing it? Do you run into the same issues as most company leaders I talk to? Share your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions – this is an area where we all need to learn from each other.