“If you paint in your mind a picture of bright and happy expectations, you put yourself into a condition conducive to your goal.” Norman Vincent Peale
You may have heard me talking about my wife and how we are complete opposites. I like to see it as a “yin-yang” relationship. Of course this also means there is constant tension, which is both good and bad. Good because we are always exploring the limits of our individual comfort zones, and bad because this process requires an endless amount of patience and understanding. One of our recent debates was about a weekend escape I’d planned for the two of us. After 20 years of marriage, I finally convinced my wife that it was okay to leave our kids at home alone. (Our eldest will be 18 in September, and his brother is only 17 months younger.) Eventually, it was agreed that we should go somewhere for the weekend – but where? This seemed to be an impossible question to answer; there were just too many variables. In the end we conquered our indecisiveness: we just got into the car and left. I figured we would get as far as Zagreb (which is about 25 km away) and then make our decision just where the motorway splits in two. I’m all for adventure and this was certainly testing the limits of my comfort zone. Deep down I believed my wife was afraid of being disappointed; however, not knowing where we were going to end up meant that we had no expectations.
But it is one thing for my wife to choose not to have expectations about her vacation, it’s another when this becomes your guiding principle. Expectations are the carrots that dangle in front of mankind; they pull evolution forward. We see them at the personal level, for instance, a scientist would not perform an experiment if he did not expect some kind of result, or you would not go on a diet if you did not expect to lose weight. However, we also see them at the societal level, where expectations are derived from religious norms and beliefs and guide our social maturity. Expectations are the seeds of hypotheses and science.
You may ask yourself why I chose to write about this; after all, there is nothing new here. But you may be surprised to discover that I regularly observe missed opportunities that are simply due to low expectations. I have also realised that setting proper expectations feeds the “Strength of the Workplace” model of Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, published in their book First Break All The Rules. The model depicts three main elements of employee satisfaction: meaningful work, opportunity to contribute and feedback for good work. Setting expectations reinforces all three elements and enables employee growth and development. The same is true for personal development. Expectations of one’s own performance – be it about staying in shape, attaining at school or triumphing on the sports field – dictates one’s success. Without expectations there are no champions. It is through having expectations that progress is made and learning takes place. You see, expectations allow you to calibrate your efforts and set “smart” (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely) objectives that will help you overcome challenges along the way to your goal.
In consulting, one of our favourite tools is getting people to describe what a perfect day would look like and how others would know it was a perfect day. Similarly, we like to ask the “consulting genie question”: if you had three wishes, what would you change about your work, in terms of your job and the company you work for? This line of questioning raises awareness and helps create a vivid image of an ideal situation – even if it’s only a dream at that moment.
By creating a contrasting image of a better environment we raise awareness, which allows us to see the deficiencies and opportunities for improvement in the current work environment. Once we have this information we know where we’re heading. It is then a simple task to divide our journey into several stages, each with its own milestone. These stages, in turn, will get broken down further into smaller measurable criteria and units that will provide the basis for your planning.
It is easy to set expectations for yourself and your team when the purpose is clear, the task is meaningful and you are contributing to make things better. The other vital ingredient is feedback: expectations don’t work if you don’t measure results or don’t get any feedback about your effort. It is all very well if we diligently measure our performance using certain indicators; what is crucial is that we seek an explanation for any deviation from that which we had expected. The indicators you use to measure performance will take on a new meaning when you not only understand them but also are able to influence them with the quality of your work. Analyse the deviation and learn from it, no matter whether it’s positive or negative in its outcome; that is the essence of continuous improvement.
Francis Lambert – Zabok, 12 June 2013