The Improvement Paradox

One of the “tells” I look for among colleagues in the workplace is a person’s eagerness to improve: improving their skills and knowledge, improving the products and services they deliver, and improving the processes they follow. The paradox is that the best workers have the most focus on improvement, but the ones who need it the most usually have the least interest in improving.

Why would the ones who need it most want it least, and the ones who need it least want it most? In both cases, it’s how they got that way. The best became the best by working at it, by frequently looking for ways to improve. The worst got complacent, vane, or passive at some point, so they’ve seen no need to work on improving.

The Time Element

The time element makes the difference. The improvers have an eye on the future. They know that no matter what they’re offering now, it’ll become stale over time. Subject matter expertise is great, but only if you keep up with the subject matter. Product expertise is a great thing, but someday that product will become irrelevant. Your current services and processes might be great, but they won’t stay great unless they keep up with evolving circumstances.

The non-improvers don’t have an eye on the future. They have an eye on some moment in the past. Some years ago, they learned one use case or procedure, or one programming language, operating system, or application, and got stuck. Call them “point-in-time Luddites” – fixated on some past state, and unwilling to go beyond it.

Lifers

This improvement tell shows up when you look at lifers – people who’ve been with the company for many years, and who want to stay for many more. The difference between the best lifers and the worst is their focus on improvement, or lack thereof. The best lifers keep updating their skills, adapting their practices, and staying in touch with what’s going on in the organization and their field. They’re always on the lookout for a better way. Their understanding of the organization is wide and deep, and therefore highly valuable. The worst lifers latched onto a technology or practice years ago, and they’ve resisted doing anything different ever since. Their understanding of the organization and their field becomes increasingly narrow and shallow as they resist anything that smacks of change.

Promotions

The improvement tell shows up when opportunities for promotions arise. I’ve always viewed promotions more as rewards than incentives – rewards for those who’ve extended themselves (improvers), not incentives for those who haven’t extended themselves (non-improvers). I’ve known employees who refused to work toward any sort of improvement unless they got a promotion first. They’re the non-improvers. I suppose you could say they’ve done me a small favor: when someone refuses to go above and beyond without a promotion, my list of candidates for promotion has gotten shorter by one.

Lessons Learned

The improvement tell shows up in lessons-learned exercises. My standard lessons-learned agenda goes like this:

  1. Review of the facts: Let’s make sure everyone understands the facts of the situation.
  2. What went well: What should we do the same way the next time? What worked? What’s most important to keep just the way it is?¬†Paradoxically perhaps, the improvers are best at noting what doesn’t need improving. Effective improvement means being selective, recognizing where it’s not needed. Otherwise, a¬†focus on improvement becomes pathological when you think everything needs fixing equally.Non-improvers tend to start with an assumption that whatever they were doing, that’s what went well. They’re less open to the idea that they’d need to change anything, so their assessments of what’s truly worth preserving will be distorted.

    By the way, in my lessons-learned exercises, I make a point of putting “What went well” before “What needs improvement” because it’s all too easy for a lessons-learned exercise to devolve into griping and finger-pointing. Starting with the positives generally puts people in a less complaining mood, and it softens the blow if there are some difficult improvements to discuss.

  3. What needs improvement: What should we do differently next time? What didn’t work as well as it should have? What’s the biggest improvement we can make for next time? Improvers are the better contributors here too, for the obvious reason that they care about making improvements, but also because they’re more collaborative about change. If the non-improvers see any room for improvement, it’ll be in someone else’s work. That changes the dynamic from “what can we do” to “I’m fine, but let’s talk about what’s wrong with you” – blame games instead of constructive improvement.

Improvers at Any Level

The improvement tell shows up at all skill levels and all staff levels. The seasoned pro who got to a certain level and then stopped has turned into a non-improver. The junior staff member who has little in the way of skills and knowledge now, but who brings a fresh perspective and who wants to develop skills and knowledge, is a valuable improver. Maybe today, the seasoned pro still fills an important role, and the junior staff person isn’t a major contributor. Over time, however, the junior improver will become more valuable while the senior non-improver will become less valuable.

Certainly, it can go the other way too – the seasoned pro who never goes stale, or the junior staff person who rarely makes an effort to do better. That’s the point: Any skill level can be improvement-focused or not.

I Like the Improvers

For these reasons and others, the colleagues I value most are the ones who have a healthy focus on making improvements.