High StandardsOn September 4, 2019 in notes • 2 minutes read
Every year since 1997, Jeff Bezos has penned an annual letter to shareholders that provides a glimpse into the leadership stylings of the Amazon CEO
The 2018 letter turned to the subject of high standards, which Bezos says have been instrumental to Amazon’s success.
A culture of high standards is protective of all the ‘invisible’ but crucial work that goes on in every company. I’m talking about the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching. In a high standards culture, doing that work well is its own reward — it’s part of what it means to be a professional.
Bezos’s letter provides a model for moving such abstract notions of high standards into the fabric of how a team works every day.
High Standards are Teachable
Bezos asserts that high standards are in fact teachable.
People are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure. High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt.
High Standards are Domain Specific
For Bezos, high standards aren’t universal, but are domain specific: having high standards in one area doesn’t mean you’ll have them everywhere else.
Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble. You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots. There can be whole arenas of endeavor where you may not even know that your standards are low or non-existent, and certainly not world class. It’s critical to be open to that likelihood.
Recognise High Standards and Coach Realistic scope
With this understanding, Bezos turns to the task of explaining what’s required to achieve high standards in a particular domain.
First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain. Second, you must have realistic expectations for how hard it should be (how much work it will take) to achieve that result — the scope.
Bezos illustrates this concept through an anecdote about a friend who wanted to do a perfect handstand. Such a handstand is recognizable: the individual is stick straight, doesn’t need support, and can hold the handstand for some time — in sum, a high standards handstand.
After making little progress on her own, Bezos’s friend hired a handstand coach, who gave her some critical advice:
Most people think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice.
While high standards are easily recognizable with handstands, the scope of effort to achieve the standards is often unrealistic.
Unrealistic beliefs on scope — often hidden and undiscussed — kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be.
This is the rub. High standards take time to master. And as managers, they take time for our team to master as well — so we must scope our expectations accordingly. High standards are hard work. But anyone who has worked in a high standards culture knows it’s work worth doing.
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