Expectations vs Standards

You have to lower your expectations.

That’s the advice my colleague B received from his boss, and passed on to me not entirely in jest. B and I both have long experience in cumbersome bureaucracies. We’ve transitioned to an organization whose hidebound culture of inefficiency and refusal to change is a legend.

I don’t wholeheartedly believe the legend. If I did, I wouldn’t have brought my passion for improvement to a place where it is doomed to meet an immovable culture. B and I see each other as kindred in this respect: we have high standards and a desire to lift those around us to meet those standards.

The difference between expectations and standards is critical. As I envision the kind of change I’m looking forward to midwifing, I acknowledge the frustration ahead of me as people, cultures, and systems refuse to budge, follow a different route, and spring back to their comfortable old shapes. I don’t expect them to change just because I open a path and provide an enticing vision: I’m in the business of enabling and leading, not selling.

While I adjust my expectations to more closely match likely outcomes, I refuse to lower my standards. None of us should need to conform to unhealthy systems. I believe I hold in common with B, the rest of my colleagues, and our clients a fundamental desire to avoid or reduce pointless work. For some, that desire is the core of an unstoppable drive to improve the world around us. Others may claim laziness. Whatever the apparent motive, enough of us are on the Team Improvement to make positive changes possible.

I will be patient, even as I preach my heretical screed of Let’s Do Better NOW. Speaking my truth is a power and a privilege I’m loath to relinquish. I won’t bring the organization up to my standards. For that matter, I am continually raising my personal standards to improvement that is always beyond my immediate grasp.

As for my expectations, they’re going to continue having an aspirational aspect. Despite the implications of management’s gentle advice, B and I will keep pushing for just that little bit more.

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