Letting go of expectations is the surest path to better results
Expectations have this reputation of being good and necessary. That reputation is wrong and detrimental to creativity, leadership, and the overall success of a project. As a creative entrepreneur, I have been in the position of both leading teams and working as a team of one. I have found time and again that if I just trust the people I’ve picked to do something, the job will be done as well or better than I would have expected.
Before I continue, let me make something clear: there is a big difference between expectations and assumptions. When you hire someone, or when you get to work on a project for yourself, there is the assumption that they or you already have what it takes to make the thing a success. Assumptions are baseline. They’re what we start with. Expectations are forward-looking, but they are not goals. They are rules. Pointless worries you make for yourself. Expectations are walls around creativity and implicit statements of mistrust.
Trust your people
“I expect you to do this” is a thing I tell my five year old. Using this phrase with employees or colleagues is telling them you don’t believe they’ll do it unless you draw the line in the sand. What works on little kids can come across as condescending and mistrustful to grownups.
At Riddle Room, we make escape rooms. In 2015, we started on a massively ambitious project to build a 600 square foot starship set. I had a vision for what I wanted, and I shared that with the project manager. She and I went back and forth on what was feasible, what we both liked, and how we wanted to proceed. From that, I developed an expectation of what the final product would look like.
However: I did not tell the project manager what my expectations for the actual design were, because I felt (and was) highly unqualified to tell a scenic designer how to scenic design. I kept my expectations to myself, assuming that she and the team she assembled had the skills to do well at what I hired them to do.
I had also developed an expectation of when we would open. If you’ve ever been part of a construction project you know what I’m going to say next. The timeline did not meet my stated expectations. We did not open at the end of March. In fact, we didn’t open until the beginning of May. At the time I was very frustrated and overly worried because I was anxious to open. I was annoyed that my timing expectations had not been met.
Don’t lose sight of the big picture
My expectations for timing were pointless. Given the nearly five year lifespan of the room we had built, a month was not significant. I did not have a cash flow problem that necessitated a late March opening, I had simply set a deadline because one needed to be set, based on what the project manager told me to expect. The expectation that we would be done right on that deadline was an unneeded worry that made things tense at the end when they didn’t need to be. Everyone was doing their job, they were doing it well, and it was taking the amount of time it was taking–and not unreasonably longer than might be expected.
How did it all turn out? Not only were my expectations for timing pointless, but my unspoken aesthetic expectations were comically low. Together, we built a room that made every single team who entered it literally gasp when they saw it for the first time. My expectations were, frankly, stupid and uninspired. If I had described them to the team, I certainly would have ended up with a significantly diminished final product.
Roll with it
Some of the best scenes in movies came from the actors improvising on set. The script they were given was the expectation, but they let go of that expectation and came up with something better. If you allow your employees the space to improvise and to veer off from expectations, many times you’ll get something better than you could have hoped for. And if not, you still have the script.
Another project of mine, the long-retired beard and mustache contest The Minnesota Beard-Off, is a victory for the art of not even setting expectations in the first place. In 2010, I decided to invite some friends to a bar to have a beard and mustache contest. I thought it would be fun to get as many people as possible. But really I just wanted to have a fun time with my friends, laughing at each other’s beards. What ended up happening was 200 people showing up to a bar with a capacity of 150 and me being stopped every few minutes at the end of the event with the question “When is the next one?”
If I had gone into that event with expectations–for high turnout, low turnout, whatever–I would have boxed myself in. If I had set an expectation for high turnout, I would have picked a bar with a significantly higher capacity, and an event that felt raucous and electric might have felt like muted milling around. If I had set an expectation for low turnout, I would not have been prepared to pivot as much as I needed to in order to accommodate the surprisingly large crowd.
The other expectation I did not set for myself was exactly how the event would unfold. No one in that crowd had been to a beard and mustache contest before, so just being there was enough. The fact that the event happened at all fulfilled that promise. Had I set an expectation for any specific outcome, I would have risked over-producing the event, making it seem inauthentic. Or I would have worried myself into a panic that the people in the back were missing all the good parts. None of that is helpful or necessary.
Expectations are pointless
In building Starship and in producing the Beard-Off, I trusted the people involved. Every outcome was better than I could have demanded through expectations. And for all the other projects I’ve participated in that have failed: would expectations have made them succeed? Absolutely not. Some failed because I set out an expectation that was not or could not be met; the failure was simply not meeting an arbitrary expectation. And some failed even though the expectations were met.
Let go of expectations and embrace trust: you’ve hired the right people or you’ve done the work yourself. Trust them. Trust yourself. Don’t expect a result. Don’t expect someone to work the way you would work. Trust that the right result will arrive. If it doesn’t, trust that you and your people have the knowledge and abilities to get where you need to be.