on bar raising
you ever just realize one day that something is… off? whether its the visual quality of your product, the candidates you’re talking to, the way your team operates, your marketing website, the way your team is writing product docs, your cadence of product development, whatever it is — there comes a time when a leader is hit with the feeling of “man, this is… not as great as it could be".
if you reach this point, congratulations!! you’ve hit a mental milestone many don’t quite get to. it’s honestly far easier to sit with good than it is to aspire to great.
the good news is, your fate is not set in stone. bars are designed to be raised. and contrary to how many organizations operate, they are not one-time decisions you make on how something works that you have to live with from thereon out. you can absolutely wake up one day and decide you want good to be better, and better to be the best. here are some observations on bar raising that have stuck with me:
lesson 1: you can’t redefine “good” if you don’t know what “great” looks like
the first step in really understanding what to do with that nagging feeling of “things could be better” is to pay attention to the places that make you feel like your bar could be raised in the first place. what companies, teams, products are you looking at that make you feel that way?
for instance, what are renowned EPD teams you want your team to operate like? what’s a marketing website that is a beautiful, elegant take at explaining a complex product? who has docs that are incredible resources for teams to get started with their tool? what’s a design system that’s both delightful and accessible you wish yours was more like?
this isn’t an exercise in trying to diagnose where you might be falling short quite yet. instead, this is an underrated activity in just training yourself as a leader to really sit with and be able to identify what great looks like. it sounds weird, but it’s kind of like when someone abruptly turns the lights on after you’ve been sitting in the dark. your eyes need time to adjust — and you should take some time to really understand what great looks like before diving into “fix it” mode.
lesson 2: dangle the possibility of what great looks like
this was a skill that ilya, one of segment’s cofounders, was absolutely iconic for. before we’d invest in an idea, he’d push us to design the highest fidelity, best possible vision for what the future could look like. this didn’t just apply to product mocks — it also applied to how he pushed us to design high-functioning teams, operating cadences, documentation, our marketing website, out-of-app flows, animations, slide decks, All Hands, and more. we never spoke about bar raising in theory, which can often be a waste of time — instead, he was constantly pushing teams to put it into practice, to show the org what it could look like, and inspire greatness.
the interesting thing about this method is it takes a bar that a leader has decided should be higher, and builds a muscle in the rest of the organization to see that it should be higher as well.
suddenly, that weekly team demo that used to be boring feels 10x more exciting than it ever did, so you want to present at the next one. that All Hands made you inspired, aligned, and energized about the company vision more than any other did before, so you want the next one to be even better. that mock looked better than the last 10, so you want yours to be that good too. that team is shipping something every week, so you want your team to be more like them too. seeing greatness begets greatness.
which brings us to the last lesson…
lesson 3: socialize greatness
raising the bar doesn’t have to be an activity in demanding more of people in a way that feels demanding (though that is not all bad). done right, it can inspiring, enjoyable, and best of all, fun.
as teams are iterating from good to great, it’s critical to create a forum to celebrate the wins along the way. segment had channels that were dedicated to celebrating how we iterated on our product, team, and culture over time:
i actually think this is where most leaders probably lose their teams in the journey to a higher bar. a lot of people think it should feel like a personal trainer yelling at you to lift more, fix your form, to do better. but i think one of the greatest things i learned from segment, especially tido and ilya, was how far fun and inclusion goes in building a better way to demand even better results.
one of my favorite examples for me personally at segment was finding a way to articulate the difference between good and great work. this is where “juicy” was born — an adjective that i used, overused, and abused during my time there to indicate when something was EPIC. it’s a bit of a joke (anyone at segment EPD can tell you), but i would say it did the job — it became a phrase we’d use in emails, slacks, All Hands, emojis and more that was a fun way to highlight, celebrate, and promote not just good work, but incredible work. and it was fun, too — lots of juicy memes were borne of this word.
(i really can’t believe i’m genuinely writing about using this adjective 1,159 times in slack, but i mean it when i say the words you use to design a culture matter!)
anyway, my favorite thing about bar raising is you don’t have to wait for anyone to start. you can define what good looks like, and then you can redefine it again. and if it’s still not high enough, you can do it over and over until it is. and you don’t have to wait to be a manager or leader to bar raise, either (in fact, this is often where leaders are born). and honestly, its fairly straightforward — the hardest part of bar raising tends to be realizing it needs to be done in the first place. it is, after all, far easier to leave the bar as it is.
but where’s the fun in that? 😄