Grady Booch delivered the following axiom at BrainstormTECH last week: “The average work of the average worker is average”. At first, it sounded perfectly rational. But on second take, I got really bothered by this. It’s based on an assumption of bad, average, and good as being static attributes of a person that I find whole fully offensive and narrow minded.

In my experience, we’re all capable of bad, average, and good work. I’ve certainly done bad work at times and plenty of average work. What I’ve realized is that the good and the exceptional work is at least as much about my environment as it is about me. Average environments begets average work.

Good people do bad work or worse all the time
Just think of all the great people and startups that have disappeared into some big borg of a company, only to come out after a few years on the other side with little to show for the trip. Even so-called exceptional people can do unmemorable work when they’re placed in inept environments.

Or think of how easily good people can be made to do bad things when put under the right circumstances. The Stanford Prison Experiment is a good example of the banality of evil.

That’s not to say that we’re all created equal and that star power can be unlocked with hippie music and sandals alone. Just that there’s a ton of untapped potential trapped under crappy policies, poor direction, and stifling bureaucracies. People waiting to do great work if given the chance.

No one can be a rock star without a great scene
So if you want your team to excel, quit thinking about how you can land a room full of rock stars and ninjas (note to recruiters: even if these terms weren’t just misguided, they’d be tired by now anyway). Start thinking about the room instead!

Here are three questions to think about as you begin to self-diagnose your environment:

  • Do you value effort over effect?
    Someone who stays up all night working is a hero, but getting the work done and leaving early marks someone who isn’t a “team player”.
  • Do you trust people to do the right thing?
    We don’t count vacation days and we give everyone a company credit card but require no real expense reports.
  • Do you encourage questioning?
    Ending discussions with “because I want it like that” or explaining policies with “because that’s the way it is”.

But most importantly, stop using the perceived quality of your team as an excuse for why you can’t try or follow new ideas. That’s a self fulfilling prophesy that’ll never fail to disappoint. Humans are incredibly eager to live down to low expectations.

P.S.: You’ll know you’re committing this fallacy when you start your comment to a Getting Real post with “but that would never work here” (it probably would, you just need the courage to try), “sure, you can do that because you have a team full of star players” (we have star players because we do it like that), or “we can’t all just do it like that” (don’t worry about all, just worry about you — and you probably could).