About a year ago, I was walking down the street with a good friend of mine. At the time, he was consulting for a couple of months as a half agile coach and half product manager at the company where I worked. That spring morning, as we walked to the office after an early breakfast together, I was venting. Something going on in the engineering team was not meeting my expectations. He listened while I explained the situation, and then calmly asked me a question I have not forgotten since:

Do they know what good looks like?

Silence.

Tech startups are, in most cases, built to attempt the impossible. We expect world-class performance leading to world-class outcomes. We do our best to hire A-players, put them together, and hope things will sort themselves out. But we forget that everyone is different and sees the world in a unique way. And that their past experiences shape their own understanding of what quality is.

What my friend was telling me that morning is that we cannot always assume others know exactly what we expect of them. Their understanding of what is best may not match our own. In fact, by default, it rarely does. Everyone is trying to do their best, yet most never had the chance to see greatness.

So what do we actually mean when we talk about "setting a high bar"? And is everyone on the same page about it?

What does a great standup look like?

What does a great technical interview look like?

What does a great pull request look like?

What does a great staff meeting look like?

What does a great hiring process look like?

Spending time on these questions may not feel like ‘stuff is getting done’. But without a shared understanding of what quality is, we are setting ourselves up for mediocrity. The shittiest common denominator is a powerful (and very real) magnet. Yet, if we are clear on what the high standard should be, we may not be there yet, but we have something to strive for.

Take incident reports for example. Sure, we would rather avoid outages and other types of incidents. But with the right process in place, every incident can actually compound into an ever more resilient system. An incident report is a typical way of describing what happened, but only good ones will help. Bad ones are just treading water and wasting time.

As a leader, there are three things you can do to help your team set and maintain a high bar in everything it does:

Lead by example. Educate yourself. Research best practices out there for everything your team does. Be opinionated, and demanding, about what the standard should be. Then embody it in everything you do. Writing an email for the team? Take the time to make it clear and concise, with no spelling mistakes. Reviewing a pull request? Make sure your review is empathetic, constructive and actionable. Calling for a meeting? Be clear on the agenda, goals and intended outcomes.

Recognise and reward greatness. No, your team is not "just doing their job". By calling out the best examples, you reinforce them in everyone’s minds. You set and reset the standard. And you don't miss out on giving recognition to someone who deserves it.

Always be coaching. A high standard is, by definition, hard to reach. Every time someone falls short, it’s not a failure but an opportunity to improve. Took part in an ineffective retrospective? Attended a staff meeting that went nowhere? Noticed an insensitive Slack message on a public channel? All of these are coaching opportunities. And it will make people appreciate you for caring about their improvement and acting on it.

So the next time something in your team feels subpar to you, ask yourself the question...

Do they know what good looks like?