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​Why progress is better than perfection

​Why progress is better than perfection

Sometimes just celebrating small wins is enough to build momentum and gain progress.

I once worked for a very large Australian enterprise, where ‘business unit X’ wanted to deliver a new product to market for corporate customers. A similar product was already available to consumers.

The product manager understood the existing systems wouldn’t support business customers and that a different sales tool would be required to enable frontline staff to sell the product. The product manager engaged corporate IT to determine how to best achieved the desired outcome.

The technology shop’s processes were well-defined and exceptionally detailed; templates and checklists existed for every phase, stage and task imaginable.

Frameworks ensured standards were complied with, impact to existing architecture was thoroughly examined and documented, before the project could be prioritised against other the ‘urgent’ demands.

Each process could be estimated within an inch of its life and detailed quote provided of the time, effort and cost. Yet, it wasn’t geared towards progress. Its perfect system seems to weigh it down. It would take in excess of 18 months for them to deliver something.

But the product manager knew he had a window of opportunity of around six months before the main competitor would delivered a similar product. It was an obvious gap in the marketplace, and the winner would take the spoils.

Faced with such significant challenges from their internal ‘vendor’, the product manager chose his own form of digital disruption by building the application without IT’s support to take advantage of the opportunity.

In the end, the product delivered hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Yet, corporate IT wouldn’t allow it to be integrated to back-of-house systems because it was built without their perfect processes and to their exacting standards.

It was built to achieve a rapid ‘speed-to-market’. The first prototype that was delivered went to a small sample population of the best sales teams Australia-wide to collect feedback and refine. It was effectively our minimal viable product, before we knew what one was.

Perfect has been warped; having moved from common-sense, along the path of continuous improvement, and into the realms for best practice. But then somewhere along the journey, the context that made perfect sense got lost.

I spent years trying to understand how leaders in that company could allow such a situation to occur. And then one day, I found myself more focussed on trying to achieve perfection in a similar fashion, rather than getting on with the job of delivering progress.

Without noticing, I had become part of the bureaucracy. I thought I was sharing my past experiences, and crafting the methods, processes and frameworks that would prevent others from delivering less than perfect solutions.

That’s when I realised it’s not about perfection, it’s all about visibility and progress. The accountability is about getting the right stuff done, not necessarily about compliance to getting stuff done the right way; especially when you are trying something new.

Progress is about moving forward, taking calculated risks, learning from set-backs, then reconsidering the options, recalibrating and pushing forward again.

For most products and services, their value is a function of the time to get it to those who want or need it, not just the benefit of having that product. And that’s why minimal viable products are so important nowadays, it’s about testing the waters and getting it to market.

In search of the perfect outcome, we often find ourselves striving for a flawless result from our efforts. Whether building the ‘perfect’ framework for decision-making, the ‘perfect’ methodology for consistent and repeatable project delivery, or the ‘perfect’ strategy, we can spend an inordinate amount of time seeking to achieve perfection, not progress.

Perfectionism is a personality trait characterised by an individual seeking to achieve faultless outcomes, and setting excessively high (and often unachievable) standards of themselves. It is usually driven from self-criticism and a concern as to what others will think of them.

In his book, The Game Changer, Dr Jason Fox describes perfectionism as ‘an elite form of procrastination’ whereby a disproportionate amount of time is invested in the initial action steps of an activity.

But do we truly understand the value we lose by seeking perfection. Instead of focussing on the 80 per cent outcome for 20 per cent of the effort, perfectionists will spend time and effort to ensure that they cover the remaining 20 per cent of benefit with four times more effort. A disproportionate amount of time.

Read more: Infochoice secures iSelect purchase

Perfection will see you arguing over the detail of the benefits, and spending a greater deal of time investigating what the costs will be. We are all required to perform due diligence when assessing whether to invest in an activity, however time to value is often greatly overlooked in the corporate world.

Progress, on the other hand, is about advancement; about moving towards a goal. Progress is about value. Progress gives us feedback and allows us to make choices and refine our offer, and occasionally gives you insights to truly innovate.

If you consider simplistically that value equals the benefits (over time) less the costs (over time), the progress is about spending less time to get benefits, and ideally less time incurring costs.

Value = benefits over x years – costs over x years

People will be quick to jump to the conclusion that methodologies like Agile and Lean Startup are all about progress, but so is Waterfall.

All methodologies are about getting work done, just in different ways and for different reasons. It’s this context that makes selecting the most appropriate method for achieving progress important, and the end state at which you are trying to arrive.

However, in larger corporates, most of us aren’t in a position empowered to challenge some of the practices that have developed over years or decades, organisational dynamics and strategies that constrain progress.

If the business model or the products are seen as perfect, a lot of apathy and inertia creeps into the culture of the business.

Eastman Kodak is the most recognisable case study in recent memory. A company that had been around 120 years, generating US$10 billion a year, dominating its home market and had margins of around 80 per cent.

It was joked that there were very few legal activities that allowed you to make that kind of money. Despite having the first patent on the digital camera, Kodak became complacent as it believed it had the perfect product in its high margin film business, and a near monopoly.

It was blindsided to its future competition, even when that competition was created within one of its own R&D labs. Disruption can be painful, but you are better to be in control of your own destination, even if it means lower profitability.

In comparison, Kodak’s main rival, FujiFilm (with a slogan of ‘Value from Innovation’) made the transition from film to focus on adjacent activities such as imagery, optics and diagnosis, and after an initial decline, has thrived.

Disruption has impacted a number of industries where a new digital brokerage model has been able to flourish to help customers compare between similar products.

Some companies have become too smart for themselves, building in complexity to obscure details and hinder comparison of similar products or services between companies. This is hardly a customer-centric approach, nor suggests that your value proposition is well understood.

New entrants have moved into insurance (iSelect, Comparethemarket.com.au), and home loans (RAMS, Aussie), utility providers, mobile plans (Webjet, Expedia).

Digital assets can generate leads 24/7 and achieve scales of economy that threaten traditional commission-based brokers.

While in the Fintech space, there are increasingly digital platforms that can be white-labelled investment and superannuation platforms, disrupting the existing players like IOOF. I have been fascinated by challengers of the likes of ASX-listed players like Hub 24 and Praemium.

Read more: Social media adds spice to financial services, say banks

Another example is Tesla Motors. While the progress Tesla has achieved in the car market is phenomenal, I am more fascinated by the recent launch of the Model 3 which saw 400,000 orders placed in the first week or so.

Tesla has been able to use demand for its future products to effectively crowd-source a capital raising to fund bringing the product to market faster, by requesting a USD$1,000 refundable deposit.

Are we seeing a new form crowd-sourcing – pushing beyond startups – that will be favoured by larger business, potentially becoming a threat to elements of banking?

It’s not that those companies that are being disrupted are unwise; but business models, mind sets, and cultures become risk-adverse, slow, bureaucratic and take incremental improvement on products and services that have seen their best days behind them. The thing about perfection is that it nostalgically reflects on how good it is/was, whereas progress looks to the future.

For me, progress is about building a culture attracted to seeing things constantly change, and even when something goes awry, to reflect, learn and improve.

Sometimes just celebrating small wins is enough to build momentum and gain progress. We should always reflect on what we are doing and why, and perhaps challenge the status quo every now and again. Perhaps what we used to do, isn’t what we should continue doing.

What actions are you going to take to help your teams progress?

Clinton Ross is head of IT projects at Aurecon.

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