The Mediocrity Magnet

Posted on October 21, 2014

Creating special work is difficult. Special work requires extra drive, effort and fortitude. But there is an unseen force inside every one of us that drives us away from greatness, away from something exceptional and away from special work. I like to call this invisible force “The Mediocrity Magnet.” This magnet is constantly pulling on us as we try and create something new. It is pulling us away from the exceptional, and back towards our normal default of comfortable decisions, stagnant innovation and the desire to fit in with those around us.

Creating exceptional software is especially hard. Design, engineering and product leadership all have to be working at a consistently high level. The Magnet may be invisible, but it isn’t hard to see. It can start with simple corner-cutting like, “we’ll figure out a better way to do this in v2,” or “this is super hacky, but it works” or more commonly “let’s just use what those guys did and that should be fine.” Fine. It sounds like a reasonable goal, and sometimes it may be. But exceptional software is created by resisting this force, and not settling for “fine” or good enough.

The main goal of a product lead, especially in software, is to be a constant force against the Magnet. When immersed in a text editor or Photoshop, developers and designers can easily get lost in the mix of the nitty-gritty details of a product. The details are incredibly important. But product leadership needs to rise above the details and understand what is truly great and what simply meets expectations. A product lead needs to constantly rebel against the pull towards normal to keep everyone working towards something great.

How do we fight this Magnet of Mediocrity? How do we keep ourselves from settling for “fine” as we make decisions about a product’s future? The answer is to constantly ask questions.

How can this be better?

What are we not thinking of?

What can we strip away to get to the core of the problem, while surprising and delighting our customers?

And, most importantly:

What about this product is special?

Special is not doing things the way everyone else has done them. Special is not accepting the norm. Special is taking the long route, but hopefully the one that is most rewarding in the end. If we’re constantly asking ourselves and our teams “what is special” about what we’re doing, we can fight the Mediocrity Magnet that pulls us all away from our real goal: special work.