Raising the Bar in Rain or Shine

Modern office life ranges from very boring to oh-my-god-the-sky-is-falling-and-my-hair-is-always-on-fire. Both are imperfect. When you are bored, you can waste time on the internet while worrying about how secure your job really is. When you are over-worked, you’re exhausted and unhappy while worrying about whether others perceive your hectic days as a loss of control on your part.

Both are undesirable. And both demand that you raise the bar.

When You Are Bored

We all have periods of “down time”  while we wait for a colleague to provide information, or for a contract to start, or for supplies to arrive, or for a decision to come down from the executives. Some of us have more down time than others. And most of us use this time to surf the internet, because frankly, the internet is just too gosh darn fun to ignore.

However, this is not fantastically productive and if it happens too often for too long, someone above you is bound to notice.

Some people might advise you to spend this time organizing your work space, clearing out your inbox, catching up on corporate memos and training, or developing new skills using online courses or those big paper things…books.

And that’s good advice, but I’m going to suggest you do something a bit more aggressive. Assess your company, its products, its processes, anything you have genuine insight into, and figure out how to fix or improve it.

For example:

  • How would you redesign the company Web site? Document templates? Reports?
  • How would you change your team’s meetings or calendar use?
  • What communications technologies could help your company? Instant messaging, file sharing?

Once you identify an issue that you fully understand, and identify a few solid alternatives, develop your idea. Research your alternatives, including cost, implementation, training, and any other measurable aspects of your ideas. Don’t hand your idea off to the head of IT or Strategy or whoever you think should be responsible for it. Take responsibility for it yourself.

Compose a full technical proposal of how you would implement your changes and what impacts you think it might have across your organization. Would it make work easier, faster, or more precise? Would it lower costs or increase capabilities, or both? Would it make life better for some departments, but not affect others?

When you feel you’ve thoroughly explored your ideas in your proposal, start to circulate it and collect feedback. Start with your own team or department and then proceed to discuss your proposal with others. With each iteration, take the time to incorporate feedback into the proposal. This way, by the time it reaches a senior decision-maker, it has been vetted and refined by a broad group of people.

If your idea is solid, then it may actually be approved, in which case you’ll get a nugget of credit for having helped to improve the company. You may even be placed in charge of implementing your idea, in which case you’ll get a lot of credit and plenty of work to fill up that free time. Win-win.

(Even if your idea is shot down, management may still recognize that you are more than just a paper-pushing drone.)

This may not be as much fun as the internet, but it’s more fun than cleaning out your inbox, and it will actually help your career.

When You Are Drowning

There are times when we have more work to do than ten people could handle. We’re putting in long hours, and logging in on the weekend, and every five minutes someone sends us a whole new project that we’ve never heard of before and it’s “Top Priority” (at least until the next one comes along).

If you can say with certainty that the flood season will end at the end of the month, or the end of the quarter, or the end of the contract, then don’t muddy the waters. Just keep treading until things setting down.

But, if this is the status quo, if things are always raging out of control, if you are always behind and that’s just the way things are, then nothing is going to change unless you make an extra effort. So, on top of the sky falling and your hair on fire, you need to raise the bar.

It can be hard to find things that are wrong with your organization when you’re bored and disconnected from operations, but when you’re caught in a storm of meetings, presentations, research, analysis, overlapping projects, and bureaucratic madness, it should be much easier. You’ve probably already got a list a mile long in the back your mind of things that are wrong with your office and how you think they should be fixed.

So do something about it.

Yes, it will take even more time out of your life. But the bottom line is that when everyone is dog-paddling around just trying to keep their heads above water, then no one is investing any time in the future. And if things are out of control right now, and no one is working on fixing that, then things will always be out of control.

And “always” is a long, long time.

There is always time for a five minute meeting with your boss to say, “We need to have fewer meetings” or “We should upgrade our accounting software” or “We need to fix the current product before we spend any more time on the next product.”

Raising the Bar

Raising the bar is about setting higher standards for yourself and your team. It’s about worker smarter, not harder. It’s about really competing with your competition, acknowledging your weaknesses, and focusing on fixing problems instead of just managing them. All too often, we become complacent with the mentality that “This is just how things work at this company” or “It’s just always been like this in our industry.”

I think the folks at Apple and Google might disagree with that mentality.

When you raise the bar, you place an extra burden on everyone’s shoulders to go through a process of transition from the old ways to the new ways. Change is extra work. But at the end of the day, when you’ve sailed high over that bar, something (or maybe everything) about your work should be better.

And better is good.

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Joseph Lewis is a writer and editor who has worked in the public and private sectors, including military, health care, and technology firms. Visit Joe's site


  1. Chuong Pham on the 31st January

    Hi there, just wanna say I’ve been reading most of posts here.
    They’re all super awsome!! I’ve found tons of helpful tips here.

    Thank you guys,

  2. Bartlomiej Praczuk on the 31st January

    Good advice. We all need to use it in our private life not only in work. Thanks for article.

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