Perfect or Good Enough? May 3 2010

Oilslick One of the issues that a lot of my high potential leader clients find challenging is summed up in this item from the list of leadership behaviors in our Next Level 360 degree survey:

  • Effectively differentiates between efforts that require perfection and those for which “good enough” is sufficient.

It’s easy to understand why that one is a challenge to get right. As the oil rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico shows, there are some things that absolutely have to be perfect. Good enough isn’t in those cases. 

Still, not everything that we as leaders or our team does has to be perfect. In fact, the urge to always have the optimal solution in every circumstance can almost ensure that we won’t get perfection when we need it.  There’s simply too much to do to optimize everything. How do you know, though, when going for the “good enough” solution is the right way to go?

I’ve been talking with my clients about that question and here are some criteria we’ve come up on how to decide between going for the perfect solution or embracing the good enough solution:

  • What’s the cost/benefit ratio on going for perfect?
  • What’s the scale and potential impact of the issue?
  • Is this a life or death situation?
  • What additional resources would we need to spend to get from an 80% or 90% solution to a 100% solution?
  • What would be the cost of failure?
  • If we fail after implementing a “good enough” solution, how would we remediate the failure? Could we remediate it?
  • What would a failure mean to our public image and relationships with key stakeholders?
  • What’s the impact on our time to market by going for a perfect solution?  Could we learn some important lessons from a “fast failure?” Can we live with a fast failure?

I’m not qualified to comment on the risk management and decision making processes that BP and their contractors have used related to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Still, a lot of those criteria questions seem pretty relevant in that case. Likewise, they also seem relevant for a team that’s building an iPhone app. Clearly, the stakes are different. With offshore oil exploration, you’re looking for perfect solutions. With iPhone app development, you probably want to err on the side of good enough because the fast failure aspect drives innovation.

What do you think? What’s been your experience with choosing between perfect and good enough?  What criteria do you use to decide? What would you add to the list?

8 Responses to “Perfect or Good Enough?”

  1. Great post, as always, Scott. Love the list of questions. One shortcut I learned years ago, and seems to apply often when quality/delivery tradeoffs need to be considered, is the guideline "Time, Quality, Price – Pick 2." People tend to at first reject the simplicity and directness of that, but it consistently plays out as a pretty good mechanism for quickly determining where the priorities truly lie.

  2. Becki says:

    I might add, "If we go with good enough and our competition goes for perfection, and achieves it, what did we lose?"

  3. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for your post! A lot of leaders and managers are paralyzed by the need to achieve perfection. In my opinion, there are few things in the business world that can be achieved with perfection.

    I help the leaders I work with shift their thinking from perfection to progress. You don't need to settle for good enough. Instead you focus on the goals and help people develop the skills necessary to exceed expectations. Along the way leaders must recognize and
    celebrate progress. Perfection is a moving target in business but we
    can always look at our progress.

    Best to you!

  4. Dan Rockwell says:

    Hi Scott,

    I think seeking perfection during the decision-making processes freezes us.

    It may be important to perform an activity perfectly. However, it may be appropriate in the decision-making process to choose the best option available at the time.

    Your readers may enjoy, "Frozen by Perfection."

    Best to you.

    Leadership Freak,
    Dan Rockwell

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