Doing average work seems a pretty obvious thing to avoid. On the other hand, teams and managers slip into it all the time. We’ve been guilty of it too.
That long-running project on a deeply dull topic for an inattentive customer that’s just drifting along. That stuttering product development initiative that no-one has the courage to kill because everyone’s too burnt out to add another awkward conversation to their to-do list. That piece of code/marketing copy/business analysis that’s just easier to fix at senior level each time rather than digging into the reasons why more junior staff are producing work below the required standard.
These dynamics persist because day-to-day it’s understandable for managers to tolerate mediocre work to focus on more pressing issues. But over time, the impact of doing mediocre work on your team can be disastrous.
John Cutler is the Head of Product Education at Amplitude and in a recent piece on The Mediocrity Trap, he outlined some of the ways mediocrity damages your team, and what you can do about it (we’ve paraphrased and simplified).
It drains motivation and morale: excelling at work you can be proud of with other brilliant colleagues is thrilling and motivating. Mediocre work is the opposite. It leads to drudgery and those who care about doing good work (i.e. your high-performers) leaving.
It’s costly: mediocre work takes away time from much better work in an insidious way. Because it’s not awful, it’s only average, it can be hard to justify stopping, in the hope that it may elevate to beyond mediocre. So it creeps along, having negligible impact and sucking resources away from the more deserving projects.
It can grow exponentially: you may try and fix the mediocre work, but chances are it's too late. Doubling down on mediocre work often doesn’t make it better, it just leads to more mediocre work.
You don’t learn anything: mediocre work is different from trying something hard and failing. In the latter instance, there’s always something to learn. For mediocre work, you already know it’s not great and that you’re falling short. You’re not learning anything new by persisting with it.
So what can you do to stamp it out?
Define awesome: make sure everyone on your team knows what great work looks like, so they can easily spot when a project doesn’t meet the standard you’re looking for.
Celebrate success: strengthen your definition of awesome by publicly celebrating great work, and making sure everyone understands what made it a success.
Normalise misses: when a project doesn’t meet your standards, explain to your team why that was the case and what actions were taken in response. It should encourage a culture where mediocre work isn’t tolerated but actively rooted out.