if it matters write it down

I Broke My Own Golden Rule—Here’s What Happened

I Broke My Own Golden Rule—Here’s What Happened 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

Recently, I collaborated with a friend on a project. It wasn’t a big project, and we weren’t doing it for money. It was more of an exploratory effort that we were both interested in doing, so we decided to do it together.

The two of us have been friends for years but had never done any work together, so it was an exciting opportunity. We jumped right in.  

Over several weeks as the project started coming to its conclusion, my friend shot me a note. In it, she asked for us to do a debrief after it was all over to talk about how everything went. 

It turns out the project wasn’t playing out at all how she had expected. It wasn’t feeling the way she wanted it to feel, and in her eyes, it didn’t feel like a success. 

In hindsight, I went into the project with very few expectations. The biggest reason for me to do it was to work with my friend on something meaningful. I thought it would be an excellent opportunity for the two of us to spend some time together creating something cool. It was supposed to be fun and energizing for us both. 

So, when it turned out that it wasn’t a good experience for her, I was heartbroken. I didn’t care nearly as much about the project as I do about her and our relationship. 

And the most frustrating part is that we could have avoided this if I’d only followed my own advice. 

My golden rule 

What went wrong in my project with my friend was a failure to get mutually clear upfront about our expectations—both of the project and one another’s role within the project. 

This shouldn’t be surprising. I preach in my training programs and speeches that a vast majority of performance failures at work result from a lack of clarity about expectations.

The same is true in relationships. When we allow ambiguous or unclear expectations of one another to exist within relationships, the relationship always suffers.

The solution to this problem is what I refer to as my golden rule:

If it matters, write it down. 

Why it matters

When it comes to any relationship, work or personal, to create optimal clarity about the agreements and expectations that matter the most, you need to put them down in writing.  

Notice that I’m not saying “discuss” them or “talk about” them. Sure, discussing your expectations with someone is far better than not discussing them. But I’ve been in far too many discussions over the years where I’ve come away with one understanding and the other person with something completely different. 

When you write something down, the opportunity for misunderstandings and different interpretations narrows dramatically.  

The act of committing our expectations to paper makes the intangible, tangible. Suddenly, we can see the fuzzy gray areas in our expectations of one another and choose to make those parts clear. 

Had my friend and I spent 30 minutes at the beginning of our project calibrating our expectations and writing them down, the project would have been a success on all fronts. 

What should you write down? 

This is probably the first question that comes to mind, particularly if you aren’t in the habit of writing down expectations and agreements. 

At work, if an expectation exists that affects how we feel about or evaluate our work, it should be written down. This could include any number of things:

  • Performance goals

  • Behavioral expectations

  • Team norms or shared agreements

  • Meeting ground rules

  • Purpose and vision

  • Strategic and other plans

  • Project assignments and roles

  • Deadlines

The list could go on. Another trick I’ve found helpful is to write down things that drive you crazy when others do (or don’t do) them or that you find yourself coaching or nudging others about frequently.  

Writing things down can also be incredibly powerful in all aspects of your life. When I coached youth basketball, I wrote down my expectations not just for players, but also for parents to clarify their role and standard of behavior. 

At home, my family went through a Brené-Brown-inspired exercise where we wrote down our family agreements like, “Say you are sorry and mean it” and “Be kind.” 

Taking time to write down expectations moves everyone to clarity far more quickly, which means less friction in the relationship and makes it much more likely that everyone ends up satisfied and happy. 

Clarity fuels accountability

Being clear on expectations not only makes it far more likely that things will happen as expected, but it also sets the stage for mutual accountability. This can be true between two people or across a team (or organization). 

For example, here’s an expectation that was in place for a former team I led: 

“No surprises. Good news or bad news should always be old news.”

This created a bond and expectation within the team to keep each other informed and ensure that if one team member got wind of something that would affect another, they would give them a heads up.  

This mutual expectation affected behavior. It also made it easier to provide feedback and coach when it didn’t happen. 

When someone didn’t get out ahead of something (good or bad) and a teammate got caught off, we could point to the shared expectation. “We agreed to no surprises. What happened here?”

When expectations are clear, accountability follows.  

Why don’t we write it down?

If writing down expectations is so effective, why aren’t more of us doing it regularly?  

There are two main reasons I’ve found—it’s not easy, and it takes time. Clarity requires work and effort. It’s always worth it, but it’s easy to skip.

Also, we’ve gotten good at settling with mediocre outcomes. When things turn out okay (not how we would have hoped, but decent), we settle and move on. What we achieved was good enough to survive and advance to the next thing.

But is good enough what you’re striving for? I’m not talking about perfection here, but I am talking about having the conviction to strive for the best. It’s easy to get stuck in a cycle where good enough is the standard because we can accomplish it without doing the hard work to create clarity. 

That’s why so few people or organizations are truly clear on their values and purpose. It takes hard work and an investment of time. 

And, we’re all really busy. Even though some of our busyness is likely due to a lack of clarity caused by unclear expectations, being busy prevents us from doing the work.

This lesson is written in my book, I’ve taught it a bazillion times, yet I skipped right over it on the project with my friend and suffered the consequences. I can’t do anything to change that now, but I can use this reminder to ensure it doesn’t happen again in the future.  

I hope you’ll do the same. Write it down. 

 

Related Reading:

Clear Expectations = Great Relationships 

How Do You Repair Your Relationships?

Engagement starts with Expectations

The #1 Management Imperative for 2021

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