As infants we are generally encouraged and motivated in our endeavours by parents and close family members (especially grandparents) telling us that everything we draw, write, create is “great”, “wonderful”, “so clever” and so on. It seems to be a universal behaviour too, based on the reasonable notion that positive endorsement is the best way to maintain our interest, encourage learning, etc.
Sometime later in our development – when we are in the formal education system – we get somewhat different guidance. It becomes important to “do our best”, “try harder”, “be the best we can be” to the point where, often, only “perfection” seems to be or will be good enough.
This raises some challenging questions about the way we seek to educate our youngsters, but that’s not my point in this article.
In a business context, I regularly see the same striving for “perfection” that many of us experienced in our schooling. Not surprising perhaps, given its pervasiveness during our formal education.
Is that such a bad thing? In many cases, it’s not. In fact, in many situations it’s essential that we seek perfection and value it in outcomes. Who would want to be attended by a surgeon who was not too bothered if she didn’t get our appendectomy quite right!
However, these different perspectives set me thinking about the way we behave in our day-to-day business activities.
Do you ever find yourself under pressure because you have “too much to do and not enough time”? Working more hours (i.e. evenings and/or week-ends) is often the consequence of such pressure – and is that the best answer? Sometimes, of course, that is what’s needed. Too often, however, that’s not necessarily the case.
Often that pressure comes because we are striving to achieve the highest possible quality of result. Why wouldn’t we? That’s the way we have been trained.
So what drives us to complete any given activity to a certain standard or quality?
When I ask people that question, the answers typically include (in no particular order): time, patience, expectation of others, pride, recognition, remuneration, oversight, criticism (anticipated or real), fear….
If one looks at the possible reasons as a continuum, then at one end we have: seeking “perfection” as an end in itself and at the other end: “getting it off my to-do list”. In the appropriate circumstances, there is nothing wrong with either of these or anything in between.
But here’s the rub!
What is appropriate?
In general I think it’s good to aim for the highest standards but for me it’s also about knowing when “good enough” is good enough in business. In other words, understanding what is an acceptable standard for a given outcome.
You may well be familiar with “the 80/20 principle”, which the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto came up with in 1906. It states that in business 80% of the results are usually achieved with 20% of the effort or resources. And, consequently, that 80% of the effort typically goes into achieving the remaining 20% of the result.
Sometimes it is well worth it – or even indispensable – to push for 100% and make all that extra effort. For example, in the example of the surgeon above, you wouldn’t want her to leave the operation 80% finished.
However, in business there are plenty of occasions, where 80% (or some similar percentage) is enough to move us towards our next step.
If I’m preparing an outline business plan to discuss with my business partner, I’ll focus on the content and not worry about the format or structure in the way that I would if I was doing the same work for a client. The quality of the content would be to the same standard for both – because that reflects my passion for what I do and my professional pride – but I would not spend anything like the same amount of time to complete the documentation and presentation for the discussion with my business partner.
Who decides what is acceptable? That’s usually the “customer” (internal or external) or delegator or you.
When you accept an order, task or piece of work, how much attention do you give to what the required standard is? How much do you assume? As a consequence of your assumptions, do you sometimes (often, maybe) put yourself (and your team) under undue pressure because you strive for “perfection”?
I can’t specify for you when “good enough” is good enough in business, but if you don’t ever check for yourself, you’ll never know. And you might just be driving yourself and your people beyond what’s needed to succeed – which means, ultimately, you may well fail.
If you want a healthy organisation, that is consistently competitive over time, it’s important to get the balance right. Start asking (and encouraging others to ask): “What does good enough in business look like for us?” Sometimes good enough is fabulous!