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Mediocrity by "areas of improvement"

How many times in your life (school, career, relationships) have you been told about your "areas of improvement"? How much time and energy have you spent working on those areas? If you're a manager, how much emphasis do you put on those areas during a performance review?

Maybe instead of working on our weaknesses, we should be enhancing and exploiting our strengths? What if the price for working on weakness (and who even decides what is and isn't a "weakness"?) is less chance to be f'n amazing?

There are several books out about this, although I haven't read them -- but the idea gets my attention:

Teach With Your Strengths, which says on its Amazon page,
"Defying the orthodoxy that teachers, to be more well rounded, should work to strengthen their weaknesses, this book, drawing on research by the Gallup Organization, maintains that great teachers are those who teach with their greatest talents and abilities."

That book is an expansion of the ultra best-selling Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham. I don't know if the books are actually good, but again, it's the idea I enthusiastically support.

Too many companies (and managers, spouses, etc.) focus too much on bringing everyone up to some level of competency in a laundry-list of attributes including time-management, communication skills, writing ability, filling out TPS reports, teamwork/teamplayer, attitude, organization, sensitivity, adhering to corporate goals and policies, etc. Clearly, there is some minimum threshold for each attribute beneath which a person might be impossible to work with no matter what the situation. But too often those minimum thresholds are set MUCH TOO HIGH and not specifically tailored enough to the individual.

By focusing on "areas of improvement", we're putting a square peg in a round hole. What do we end up with? A crappy, rounded off peg who meets the minimum thresholds at the expense of their most kick-ass attributes. What if let ourselves (and those we manage) spend a lot more energy in the areas where we are--or could be--amazing? I suggest taking a very hard look at the "areas of improvement" list and see if we can rearrange the context so that those things become less important. In other words, why don't we try to make a square hole?

I know that everything I've said here can be abused and used as an excuse for poor performance in every area. But remember, this is about tradeoffs -- so I'm assuming that we're cutting some "areas of improvement" slack to those who demonstrate that they HAVE areas in which they are--or could be--amazing. And I'm also assuming that those areas have some real potential use/benefit. But really, do your best programmers need to be filling out their TPS reports? How many of us have lived through the cliched scenario where the time-sheets we fill out need an entry for "time spent filling out time sheets"?

OK, I admit I have a thing against performance reviews in general, but if we must have them, I'd love to see some big changes to the typical form. I'd like to see a teeny, tiny space reserved for "areas of improvement", which lists only those things deemed absolutely critical that are below the minimum threshold, and I'd like to see a BIG space titled "Areas where you are (or can be) f'n amazing." Then a plan can be custom-tailored for removing not the areas of weakness, but the things which make those weaknesses a problem (and which get in the way of using their strengths).

And this isn't just for employees--many of us need to think about this in our startups (something I'm just beginning to deal with now)... are we trying to exploit our strengths, or are we in a position where we're forced to spend too much precious effort improving our weak areas? To use the business cliche, are we trying to do business in areas that aren't our "core competency"? Agile companies are those who can turn on a dime and recognize when an area might be profitable but is slowly leading them in a direction away from their unique strengths.

If we have everyone working on their weaknesses, we do smooth out the attribute curve. But then we get mediocrity in a wide range of areas, and less f'n amazing work in narrow ranges. For many of us, we just can't afford mediocrity. There's too much competition there.

So, what can we do to make more square holes?

Posted by Kathy on February 6, 2006 | Permalink


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I *don't* want what she's having...because I'm not her!

Why should I waste my time trying to become mediocre at some skill that doesn't even impact on my work? If it's a core competency of my job and I suck at it, that's an entirely different matter.

Posted by: Cyndi L | Feb 6, 2006 11:25:15 AM

I *don't* want what she's having...because I'm not her!"

Cyndi, I love that! I'm putting that on a post-it on my monitor.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 6, 2006 11:29:14 AM

I got asked to give my staff performance reviews, and while we mutually filled in the forms, we kept a separate "training toward what I want to do in the future" plan (whether or not it was directly work related) and a separate "OA5" plan - the same "Out at 5" boiler plate as suggested by Scott Adams. Employees used to be well motivated, always delivered and - we managed to subvert some of the marketing spend to pay for any training course they wanted to go on. Results came in, so no-one noticed unduly. A real example (for a recent graduate) looked like this:

OA5 Plan: [Employee Name]

You will sometimes find yourself surrounded by people who have different goals to you, who will unknowingly do things that undermine your projects, or that generally behave outside the best interests of [Company Name]. You task is the rise above this, and despite all obstacles, deliver:

180,000 dial-up subscribers by the end of April 1998

Complete the National Advertising for Jan-April 1998, including the test of a radio campaign

Complete the Corporate Brochure, Welcome Packs and other tasks we mutually agree that you should execute

Full participation as a member of the Marketing Services Team

Help [Manager] put together a spend plan for the new financial year starting May 1st 1998

Tests of everything you do. It’s a much safer world if we get to know what works, what doesn’t, and that we’ve learnt. Within the bounds of experimental exercises, we should strive for continuous improvement

Functions of your manager

In support of the above goals, your manager will assist in the following ways:

1) Eliminating Assholes. If anyone or anything is standing in the way of you meeting your objectives, please seek assistance to get the obstacle cleared. It is his role to absorb uncertainty and to provide the environment where you can deliver your projects unhindered. We want you to enjoy your work and to be proud of your achievements.

2) Your manager will do his best to provide an environment where you are learning (and helping the company learn) every day. Requests for training are welcome. Sharing of ideas and distribution of your learnings to your manager and your colleagues, ideally in small digestable chunks, is encouraged. And you are expected to make mistakes. That’s the way we all learn.

3) Seek forgiveness, not permission. In the same way you can escalate issues to your manager, there will be times when the data, or key staff, aren’t available for us to hit a key decision deadline. Time to market is key; having weighed up the pros and cons, make the decision that you believe is right for the company, our customers and preferably both.

4) Building your personal network. It’s often a case of who you know; contact with suppliers, customers and other departments in Demon is actively encouraged. Please keep details of everyone you talk to, and don’t be afraid to seek advice from anyone with pertinent experience that you deem appropriate. The strength of your personal network – particularly outside the company – should build to be a significant personal asset.

5) Timekeeping and attendance. We wish to provide an environment where you can discharge your commitments between 9:00am and 5:30pm. If there are times where you prefer to work from home, or from another location, please let us know your whereabouts so that we can find you if needed. Should you work extended hours (attending press announcements or any work related activity outside hours), you may take this time off in lieu; again, please let us know when you are doing this so we can correctly set expectations of anyone that asks for you.

6) No retribution. Your manager is available to help in any way at any time, day or night. However, if anything concerns you in any way, you are free to talk to [Managers Manager], any other director or the Personnel Department directly.

Manager: [Managers Name]
Office: [Managers Office Phone No]
Mobile: [Managers Mobile Phone No]
Home: [Managers Home Phone No]
Email: [Work Email], [Home Email]

Posted by: Ian Waring | Feb 6, 2006 11:36:36 AM

I agree that there is too much emphasis on perfecting things we aren’t good at. There are certain skills that employees should have. Such as being able to communicate in writing. But we don’t have to be the world’s best writers to accomplish that objective. Our greatest value-add is our uniqueness. I read “Now, Discover Your Strengths” a few years ago. I was struck by how right Mr. Buckingham was. Until that time I had worked to strengthen my weaknesses, which seems an extension of the whole school experience. Standardized testing requires that we all learn and perfect the same things. This became a habit for me. Breaking out of that habit and working to strengthen my strengths has been a struggle and I’m still working on it. But I’ve identified it as a problem which is the first step. The second step I think is seeing the strengths in other people. Then learning to build a team with strengths and personalities that complement each other. Don’t forget that what you may see as a weakness may actually be a strength. There are people who I call “glue people” whose strength lies in keeping things running smoothing. That is their strength and it is subtle and highly undervalued.

Great post.

Posted by: Kim Greenlee | Feb 6, 2006 11:49:54 AM

Seems like another 80/20 rule application. Something like, you'll get a 20% return on improving 80% of your attributes versus an 80% return on improving 20% of your attributes. Or spend 80% of your time on 20% of your attributes and 20% of your time on the other 80% (if the first sentence is truthy, the second sentence is probably the best overall time investment).

Posted by: Bob B | Feb 6, 2006 12:02:29 PM

I agree. I think it would be interesting to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. I think this brings up the idea of specialization. Instead of a person being a master at one particular area of her job, she is often called on to be a little knowledgeable about many many things. I think that both sides of the specialization v. generalization agruments have merit and I can definitely see both sides. Either way though accentuating positives is a good idea. I don't think that minimizing weaknesses is necessarily a good idea though. If someone is deficient, she should be told about it and encouraged to improve.

Posted by: Kendall | Feb 6, 2006 12:08:55 PM

So, it's hip to be square (keg), heh? ;)

Posted by: Berislav Lopac | Feb 6, 2006 12:13:36 PM

Last fall I read First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman which got me on the track of looking at strengths rather than deficiencies in employees. The book advocates spending more time with the great employees to help them improve their strengths because that will have the greatest impact on the bottom line. This seems counter-intuitive at first and then extremely sensible.

I tend to look at my colleagues more often as having a unique set of strengths to compliment my strengths rather than thinking that they have to be good at everything that I'm good at. I am reminded to value diverse viewpoints... together, with our combined strengths, we are more able to do great things.

Thanks for getting me thinking on this track again!

Posted by: Lee Henrikson | Feb 6, 2006 1:18:49 PM

Great point, well made! I have a Peter Drucker quote from his book "New Realities" on this idea as it relates to education:

"The first and wisest writer on raising small children, the great Greek biographer and historian Plutarch, spelled it out in a charming little book, Paidea (Raising Children), in the first century of the Christian era. All it requires is to make learners achieve. All it requires is to focus on the strengths and talents of learners so that they excel in whatever it is they do well. Any teacher of young artists -- musicians, actors, painters -- knows this. So does any teacher of young athletes. But schools do not do it. They focus instead on a learner's weaknesses.
One cannot build performance on weaknesses, even on corrected ones; one can build performance only on strengths. And these the schools traditionally ignore, in fact, consider more or less irrelevant. Strengths do not create problems -- and schools are problem-focused."

We can't succeed with schools - or businesses - that focus on finding what's "wrong" with students or staff. Let's stop shaving pegs.

Posted by: Conn Mc | Feb 6, 2006 1:23:41 PM

Appraisals should really be about getting the appraise to reflect on themself and their acheivements, strenghs and 'areas for improvement' from their *own* perspective.

They're the only ones who can deliver. The manager can't do it for them.

Our HR dept has a form but I never use it. I just ask the appraise to come prepared with their own thoughts on their 'on going strenghs', 'improvements' and 'opportunities'. They do most of the talking; they're usually right about 'opportunities'.

What do I add as a manager? We'll I suppose I'm a little like a psychiatrist. They bring up a topic; I ask them questions that lead them to a conclusion. For anything, that I can't guide them to a conclusion on via questioning, it's probably too early to address head on. We'd get nowhere, they just wouldn't understand or accept it.

However, we'll be moving in the right direction. Maybe next time round, they'll understand and be truely ready to make the another step.

Posted by: Paul Grayson | Feb 6, 2006 1:42:10 PM

Thank you for this post, which prompted me to finish writing up a story (link is in my name below) about a manager who redesigned her performance reviews, so she could give her staff more chances to be amazing. I was her direct report at the time, and I can testify that her unconventional approach worked very well indeed.

Posted by: Pamela McAllister | Feb 6, 2006 2:32:29 PM

The point that you have raised is so valid, yet rarely, if ever practised in the real world. To use the analogy of a builder, in your Performance review it will be ignored that you built the whole house, but it will be pointed out that you forgot to paint a tile on the roof just under the chimney. Thats what performance appraisals turn out to be.

I dislike the word performance appraisals in the first place, it should be named "strength review" or "flex your muscle" or "talent review" or whatever.

Posted by: neelakantan | Feb 6, 2006 9:25:20 PM

There is a God! And He's decided to use a messenger who can put things across in English that everyone can understand.

Amen. (I've been waiting years to see this sort of post).


Posted by: Jason Bell | Feb 7, 2006 2:06:41 AM

I wish I could remember where I read a story about performance reviews in the jungle. It was written like and African folk tale and ran along the lines of the frog being good at swimming but needing to work on his singing, the eagle being good at flying, but needing to work on his jumping, etc. You get the picture.

So everyone worked like the dickens on their weaknesses. No-one practised the things they were already good at and they all gradually deteriorated in those areas as a result. The upshot of all this was that the jungle wound up being populated by a whole bunch of animals who were mediocre at everything and miserable to boot.

I have done the story little justice and I wish I could credit the author, but I use it from time to time to remind myself that we should play to our strengths and staff to our weaknesses.

Posted by: Karyn Romeis | Feb 7, 2006 3:01:06 AM

Another bonus ... if managers start looking at employees strengths, guess what the employees will start doing? There's a little truth to the "Whatever you focus on is what you'll see" concept as it applies to positive/negative things. Focus on positive things and positive results are more likely; focus on negative things and negative results are more likely.

Posted by: Bob B | Feb 7, 2006 6:42:02 AM

Some of us are born to kick ass amd some of us are born to suck like hell! Plain and simple.

Working on your weakness is a good thing too. But it must be in a honest environment. Arnold Schwarzenegger had poor calves. So he tore off his pants (knee down, easy ladies) and let himself get humiliated by himself (looking all the way to compare your excellent biceps/shoulders with those weak calves) and all other honest guys (Franco Columbo was his training partner) guys like Dave Draper hung around back then. so it can be a good thing.

Just don't get into grey areas and get examined with the "zombie performance monitor" by *performance challenged people*:-)

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Feb 7, 2006 7:10:07 AM

I'd bet that people who are encouraged to pursue their strengths would see their weaknesses diminish as an unintended consequence.

Posted by: kris | Feb 7, 2006 7:28:29 AM

The greatest leaps in growth for me have always been when my manager focused on developing my strengths and *managing* my weaknesses. I'd rather hear "You're great at creating a vision, let's work on sharing that vision more effectively" than being told (yet again) "People don't like your methods/attitude/style."

One approach has me treating the issue as a continuous improvement learning experience, where I'm open to new ideas and willing to test out new methods; I've got something of value that will not get the proper recognition unless I learn to promote it (and myself) better.

The other approach has me starting out feeling wrong and unliked and afraid of every change I make to improve, in case that makes it worse. I feel like no one will care what I come up with unless I change superficially and dog-and-pony it just right.

It's a personal attack that tells me I need to change my personality, rather than a professional observation that tells me to adjust my behaviors in a particular area, to achieve a particular result.

I definitely recommend "Now, Discover Your Strengths". After being constantly told that "You're not a people person", I found out that I'm actually a very strong Relator and forming close bonds with teammates is very important to me - a facet of interpersonal relationships that got overlooked when all I was told was "You are always irritating people; you come on too strong." Well, when people get to know me, when I make those Relator relationships, those "irritation" problems go away - so now I use that known strength and work on extending it to improve my first impressions and dealings with strangers. I'm not "fixing" a weakness now; I'm developing a strength.

Posted by: Raven | Feb 7, 2006 10:16:18 AM

Good point Raven,

Gosh, I don't know how many times I've had to go through the "It'll help if you work on your soft skills".

Geez, I come on strong because I see/saw that no one moved their friggin' backsides if I didn't do anything. So it's good to play the role of a motivator but if the unmotivated is not willing to budge, then just let it go.

The dilemma here is that you are the only one who
o CAN take the leadership role
o can actually also do some real stuff to get things going
o feels really responsible
o is left unappreciated

The only problem is that the (so called) team mates end whining at the manager's desk when you turn your back around.

Honestly the problem is that incompetent people prefer to hide behind some bloke who'd do the job. Just take your umbrella somewhere/someplace else.

So I've learnt is to hone and sharpen my skills, where I'm good at. If I can't find appreciation here, I'll take it (my strength) somewhere/someplace else. And just let everyone stand up for himself.

Good thing is I'm a lot more satisfied and get loads of appreciation of what I do and I'm happier than ever. All the *team mates* are glad to see the bull mellow down.

Everyone happy (smirk).

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Feb 7, 2006 12:07:26 PM

Kathy: I blogged about "Now, Discover Your Strengths" here: http://www.philweber.com/2004/06/26.htm#a115 . I chose my current job as a result of my "Strengths Assessment." I recently received a glowing performance appraisal and a raise, so I'd say I made the right decision!

Posted by: Phil Weber | Feb 7, 2006 1:53:11 PM

Martin Seligman's book "Authentic Happiness" might also be interesting - I think it also works with the idea of knowing and exercizing strengths instead of trying to correct weaknesses. This is a GREAT post.

Posted by: Jill | Feb 7, 2006 9:48:15 PM

Nice post... Its exactly what the books from Buckingham is about..

Posted by: Jason | Feb 8, 2006 7:36:44 AM

Performance Reviews: you might be interested in the Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry? A question asked in this book is 'do we do more of what we do well, or less or what we do poorly?' An important distinction. A thin book, literally, with a big message.

Posted by: Geomancer | Feb 8, 2006 2:51:45 PM

I just received another "eyes are bigger than my stomach" box of books from Amazon, which included Buckingham & Coffman's "First Break All the Rules", as well as Rath & Clifton's "How Full is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Life and Work", which I will recommend be added to the recommended-but-not-yet-read list :-).

The same shipment also included Doug Rushkoff's outstanding "Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out", which [also] has much to contribute to this issue of work, fun and areas of strength:

"Making money should really just be a happy result of contributing to the world what you do best. ...

Rather than confirm businesspeople's sense of inadequacy by maintaining some angry, counterculturalist posture, I'm instead inviting them to reorient to their businesses from a place of passion and concern rather than timidity and terror. ...

I believe that commerce, enacted mindfully, can liberate itself from the neocon mythology that it currently serves, and instead turn both our labors and economy toward serving needs instead of a central authority that—quite frankly—does not exist."

[actually, the foregoing is from Doug's blog: http://www.rushkoff.com/2006/01/business-is-good-really.php]

Posted by: Joe McCarthy | Feb 8, 2006 2:58:45 PM

Kathy, Are you an Employer?

Posted by: Santosh | Feb 8, 2006 7:01:50 PM

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