Thursday, March 17, 2011

Don’t Let the Quest for Perfection Stop You From Delivering Good Enough

Executive Summary:
Most of us perpetually seek to be right, do things right, or see the right things done.  Sometimes, though, we become paralyzed when uncertainty, or the just-one-more syndrome cloud our vision of right.  Solve this by establishing a clear vision of what “done” looks like and satisfy that vision.

The Rest of the Story:
In business development, product development, and process improvement alike, we seek to improve upon the current state.  When we have a vision of the possibilities, it’s easy to see a whole chain of improvements that could lead us into the future.  However, if we perpetually seek that vision of perfection, we never finish.  It certainly should be our quest to establish perfection, but if we never deliver anything at all, we don’t do ourselves any favors.

I’m certainly not saying that we should settle.  I would never say that we should sacrifice quality.  In fact, if having a higher standard of “good enough” is a competitive advantage for your business, then absolutely do not lower your standards.  What I am saying is that we should begin an effort with a clear vision of what “good enough” is, or as I like to say, “what done looks like,” and know when we have achieved that vision.

I know we are all tired of hearing about Apple and Toyota, but in this case Apple’s products make a good example of this principle with which we can all identify.  There can be no doubt that Apple’s iPod, iPad, and iPhone all have some perceived quality and value greater than the competition because they are clear market-leading products.  It’s clear that Apple didn’t sacrifice quality or innovation to make up time to delivery.  But, for each product, a quick follow-on also showed up.  Obviously, the products that launched first were not Apple’s idea of perfection, but when Apple perceived they had developed enough quality and capability to beat the competition handily, they launched, knowing that there was more that could be done, and would be done later.  It’s a great example of a vision of a high standard of “good enough” and an understanding of when the development had achieved it.  The quest for perfection continues, but they are making a fortune on “good enough” in the mean time.

The same principle applies to business development and process improvement as well.  People who have worked with me in these arenas are accustomed to me chanting, “Don’t let the quest for perfection get in the way of good enough.”  I can’t count the kaizens and improvement initiatives in which I had to reign in the team and help build a plan to deliver all of the identified improvements in small doses.  Often the total improvement opportunity was huge, and the effort to get there was likewise.  Instead, we focused on identifying meaningful steps and reasonable efforts so that we could reap early rewards and use that savings to justify proceeding to execute the rest of the roadmap of improvement changes.  In business development we can massage proposals, play with metrics, tweak business plans, or get just a little more information for our marketing plan, on and on, it seems, for eternity.  The little things and business plans are often problematic because it is more difficult to clearly know when you have “good enough.”

So why do we do it?  Well, there are several reasons.  We know that an insufficient or incomplete plan or product will fail, so we hedge our bets against risk or fear of failure.  We do it because we are passionate about being the best or delivering the best.  We do it because we are allowed the time.  We do it when we are concerned that if we don’t do it now, we never will.  We get carried away when we don’t have a clear picture of when we have arrived.

Here are a few thoughts to help avoid a runaway quest for perfection.
  • Establish a clear vision of “what done looks like.”  Don’t start your effort before you have answered the question, “do I truly understand what done looks like, and will I know when I get there?”  (I suggest building this question into your product development process.)
  • Establish a system to capture the ideas for making “good enough” better and a practice of following through on those ideas. (This kind of knowledge management is a significant change for many U.S. organizations, but it is incredibly powerful – many of the Toyota studies will give you some examples to study)  Having a commitment to pursue perfection makes it easier for team members to let go and focus on good enough.
  • During development of your product or business plan, if you can make a choice that enables both “good enough” and follow-on perfection, make the investment in that choice.  If you have the discipline to follow through, you will capitalize on it.
  • Identify “good enough” by using some of these questions.  Will this level of achievement make things perceivably better? (a good basic question for everything from a report, to a business plan)  Will this level of delivery pay for the investment to change/improve?  Will the time required to develop this solution cost more than can be made/saved with a lesser solution?
  • Build a roadmap of “good enough” deliveries that eventually get you to perfection.  This helps to drive the commitment and resources to continue toward perfection and allows you focus on the “good enough” opportunity.
  • When defining “good enough,” use is, is-not language.  When it is clear what the end product is, and also what it is not, it makes it twice as clear “when the train has reached the station.”

These few thoughts address the anxieties over letting go of perfection mentioned above.  I offer these for your consideration, but I encourage you to study your own organization’s behavior about questing for perfection and develop solutions and behaviors to set those anxieties to rest.

My colleagues and I used to joke that the Engineer’s motto is, “If it aint broke, it don’t have enough features.”  Our management at the time seriously believed that if they didn’t give the engineers an aggressive deadline they would engineer the product forever and would never finish.  Maybe they were right.  Generally, engineers take a great deal of personal pride in their designs and want to see the products come out right.  I know this though:  when the expectations of the final product were clear, all other things being equal, it was easier to focus on the end goal and development went faster.

We all strive to make things better and do things right.  It’s easy to see one more thing, or add one more idea to the plan.  To keep your plan from running away in a never-ending quest for perfection, eliminate the anxieties that drive the compulsive quest.  Clearly identify what “good enough” is and what it is not.  Commit to roadmaps that allow the quest to continue after “good enough” is already making you money.  Encourage the passion for perfection with simple knowledge-capture and management practices that ensure the ideas for perfection are not lost when “good enough” is the focus.  It’s excellent to seek perfection, but we must deliver ”good enough” along the way to finance the quest.

Stay wise, friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment