To Pursue Excellence, Don’t Live with Deficiencies

(Courtesy of MichaelGaida of Pixabay)

For all those who pursue excellence, the menace of deficiencies is a constant threat.

Deficiencies are the enemy of excellence. They partner with apathy and laziness. They’re on a first-name basis with Pressfield’s Resistance. When we invite deficiencies into our lives, we are welcoming a parasite. Something to slowly exhaust our drive towards excellence.

And deficiencies are savvy. They enter our life as a minor nuisance. They mask their true malevolence with a forgettable exterior. They burrow into our lives as a termite may start to make his way into the walls of our house. Each one simplifying the path for the next. One is insignificant. But they begin to compound.

Deficiencies are dangerous because we don’t recognize their true cost. We see a minor annoyance. Eventually we don’t even notice it. Its familiarity leads to acceptance. It’s our new normal. Which now sets our standard.

There is no greater danger to our standard of excellence than rationalizing away deficiencies. If we pursue excellence, we cannot live with them.

My life’s filled with deficiencies. Most of ours are. Maybe nothing major. But a myriad of minor inconveniences. And slightly unfinished projects. Or inefficient workarounds.

My car’s check engine light is a permanent feature of the dash. My gutter downspout is held together with duct tape. And the less said about my chimney cover, the better.

Work is no different. Minor inconsistencies are allowed to continue. Ineffective processes go unchallenged. An instance of sub-par work is allowed to slide.

Today’s short-term fix becomes tomorrow’s long-term solution. Today’s allowance becomes tomorrow’s standard.

Gresham’s Law, named after 16th century financier Sir Thomas Gresham, states that bad money will drive out good. We can extend a similar process to human behaviors. When we allow a poor practice to become a part of our behavior, we rationalize that it’s acceptable. We focus on what’s convenient today and lose the drive towards further improvement. It becomes much easier to simply make do. So we give a deficiency a competitive advantage. And as with Gresham’s coins, we bias a poor practice over a better alternative.

(Courtesy of Oscar Sutton of Unsplash)

And as these deficiencies become more rooted in the routine, we associate them with our normal processes. It becomes the status quo. And as research has found, we frequently weigh the potential losses of deviating from the status quo more heavily than the potential gains. Thus widening the competitive advantage of a deficiency and building the resistance needed to overcome and correct.

“When you’re not cultivating quality, you’re essentially cultivating sloppiness.” — Josh Waitzkin

How many issues do we find ourselves just living with? How many minor problems have just become parts of our life? When we surround ourselves with poor quality, it affects our perspectives. We internalize it. And it dictates our standards.

An employee turns in work that’s not up to her usual standards. If I let her slide today, I’ve lowered the standard for tomorrow’s work. And I’ll find it more difficult to correct the next time.

An inefficient work practice hurts morale. It drains the energy from people who want to deliver their best every day. When I allow those practices to sustain, I reinforce that convenience is of higher priority than quality.

Individually, these all may be relatively small. But the little things, cumulatively, are the big things. They accumulate to lower today’s standard. And tomorrow’s standard suffers as well.

If we don’t reinforce quality every day, we won’t be prepared when we’re faced with those great opportunities.

To pursue excellence, we need to recognize and correct these deficiencies. And we need to reinforce this behavior every day.

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” — Colin Powell

When legendary football coach Bill Walsh took over the 49ers, they had just come off a 2 and 14 record. His first season they again lost 14 games. Two years later, they won the Super Bowl.

Walsh didn’t achieve this through rousing speeches or brilliant strategies. He merely understood the importance of living excellence.

He implemented a system of standards, covering every detail, no matter how trivial. Practices were scheduled to the minute. Drills were repeated and monitored to the inch. Sportsmanship and professionalism permeated every action, every aspect of the team.

Walsh knew that if his team internalized excellence, winning would eventually happen.

He understood that if we want to truly embrace excellence, we cannot allow deficiencies to lower our standards, no matter how trivial.

“And put your garbage in a garbage can, people. I can’t stress that enough. Don’t just throw it out the window.” — Proper childcare advice from Agent Goodman. The Simpsons

As we come through our daily challenges, we should take a moment and ask ourselves, “With this action, am I accepting a deficiency?”

If yes, consider whether we can address it now. It may take some time, but we’re able to save ourselves the mental anguish of repeatedly thinking about it.

If not, I try to schedule a time to fix it. This simple act was the difference-maker for me. Once I put it on my calendar — instead of just designating it as “later” — I was much more likely to follow through. There’s a big difference between choosing not to do something and not choosing to do something.

Where have we lowered our standards and made excuses for deficiencies? Our environment dictates our standards and we can’t improve one while ignoring the other.

So I made a list of every accepted deficiency I could think of. From an unfinished bathroom remodel to a poorly operating garage door. From a convoluted performance appraisal process to an inaccurate quality metric.

I’m working on completing one per day. The simple act of taking action lifted a huge weight from my shoulders.

Without even realizing it, I was carrying the collective weight of these deficiencies around with me. They were a constant, unrealized distraction. A burden that I was carrying without even being aware. The simple act of starting to take action was freeing.

At my current pace, I’ll have worked off my backlog in six months. But that’s okay. I’m taking action. And every day I get a little closer to excellence.

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