All too often, people obsessed with wanting to make something perfect rather than simply ‘good’, miss the window of opportunity that ‘good’ would readily have satisfied.  They end up with nothing.  Thus the expression: perfection is the enemy of good.

  1. Beaver Tales

Uncle Len, the sage old beaver of The Best Dam Business Book in the World (1) offers this advice to Billy Beaver and Cora Beaver:

“You will have to make your own choice,” suggested Uncle Len.  “But let me offer you a guideline that might help; I call it the 80% rule – and it is a rule easily abused.  So, listen to me carefully.” 

“In any new endeavor be content with locating 80% of your objectives and assume you will be able to fill in the remaining 20% later.  For in this case, if you try to locate a 100% perfect site for your dam, you will spend many weeks trying to find it, even if you are able to find it at all.  The 80% rule allows you to get on with things, to avoid dither and delays.  It is based on having the confidence that, by hook or crook, you will be able to adjust to the missing 20%.  And even if you don’t adapt to it, you will have 80% of what you want.  Think of the alternatives of the choice at the moment:  80% of your wants met if you accept it or 0% if you don’t.  80%, while not perfect is infinitely better than 0%.  And if the situation has a time constraint you can easily end up with a choice between almost all that you want or absolutely nothing as time runs out.” 

  1. The Route to Excellence

Lou Gerstner, Chairman of IBM who successfully masterminded the recovery of the behemoth computer firm when everyone in the know assumed it was all but finished, pointed out one of his most frustrating experiences with the company at that time.  Many projects would remain on the drawing board as the engineers and scientists fine-tuned the designs to get the projects ‘just right’ (2).  Scientists and technical experts from many different levels had a veto power over a project and could arrest its progress at any point if they were not satisfied with the development.  This was a common occurrence at IBM.  It was equally common that designs held up by this process would miss the window of opportunity, only to have that window snatched by an alert competitor.  Obviously, despite the brilliance of these world-class engineers, Excellence could not be achieved because non-delivery meant nothing happened.

Three steps are required to complete any task.  The first step is to get a working model in place that satisfies the needs of the user and the second step is to make sure it is delivered on time or within the window of time available.  The third step is to make that model as perfect as possible.  When a reasonably perfect model is in place, we will have achieved Excellence with respect to that task.  Here then is the route to Excellence.  First, have the design complete what it was originally specified to need, and second, within the time frame allowed.  At that point you will probably have 80% of the job done.  Anyone close to the project will see that fine-tuning measures can be applied but they must resist going down that route unless time is clearly available for it.  Why?  Because you must first accomplish step one and two; otherwise step three may never be needed.  If you have missed the window of opportunity and the project is no longer in demand, what good is the fine tuning?  However, if you deliver the required 80% at the required time, later circumstances will allow the refinements and fine-tuning that will bring the project to Excellence.

Look at the two options:

#1        80% done + 20% refined all in one go, but missed the delivery date.  Nobody wants it now.  Wasted effort.

#2         80% done and delivered on time.  Pleased with the initial outcome.  Now begin refinements to create an Excellent product.  This is the route to Excellence.

  1. 80% Costs 20%

If you want an automobile that will take you from A to B, you can pay $30,000 for a reasonable car.  Getting you from A to B fulfills 80% of your personal transportation needs.  However if you want perfection, a Mercedes Benz will cost you $120,000.  The Mercedes will get you from A to B, accomplishing 80% of your task.  But also it will get you there very quickly, very enthusiastically and very prestigiously.  That remaining 20% of your transportation goal will cost you an extra $90,000 – an extra 80% of costs.  That is the extra 20% of your goals is accomplished for an extra 80% to your costs.  Think of any specialization – wine, stereo, etc.  A reasonable version is 4 or 5 times cheaper than a near-perfect version.  20% of costs (or effort) gets you 80% of your goal and the last 20% of your goal costs you 80% more.  $20 puts a reasonable wine before you; for $80 more you can have a near-perfect wine.  A stereo speaker pair for $400 sounds good; the Tannoy Churchill loudspeakers at $25,000 per pair are close to heaven for a stereo buff.

Even the education system in Ontario (and many other jurisdictions) accepts the 80% rule.  If you demonstrate 80% knowledge (by getting 80% mark on your courses), you become an Ontario Scholar.

  1. Efficiency and Effectiveness

Another paper of this series, Efficiency is Bad (3), outlines how the role of effectiveness (providing something that someone else needs) has to be balanced with efficiency (providing something with a minimum of wastage).  Aligning the 80% Rule to effectiveness and efficiency would be to point out that delivering the first 80% of the project that satisfies the immediate need is being effective.  Delivering the remaining 20% is adding the efficiency.  Efficiency brings you nearer to perfection.  In a business, efficiency brings you the profits, but only after you first have been effective.  (The reference paper states that you cannot enjoy the luxury of efficiency until you first have been effective.)  The digital circuits must work well (be effective) before you can engineer the reduction of their selling price to $5.95 each (be efficient).  For, if you sell them at $5.95 (efficient) but they don’t work well (ineffective), then what’s the point of attempting cost reductions?

 It takes 20% of the effort to be effective (to reach that 80% of the project) and 80% of the effort to become efficient (to focus on the remaining 20%).

  1. The 80% Rule and PAVF

 P’s are direct and to the point.  They embrace the 80% Rule wholeheartedly as they take the shortest route to deliver a meaningful answer quickly.

 A’s are a paragon of efficiency and will not appreciate, at first, that you can get meaningful results at 80%.  They have to be shown that going beyond 80% will often create chaos which they abhor. (The service will have missed the window of opportunity and no longer be needed.)

 I have a friend whose whole life seems to be centered on efficiency, a true A.  No matter the discussion, her focus moves immediately to the details combined with, a myopic view of, or a distancing from, the original purpose of the event.  She and her sister are going to paint the wall red.  Her view then shifts to 25 different shades of red and the struggle to find the perfect red for that room. As much time and conflict will be put forth in choosing the red as in preparing the room and actually painting it.  The project, that was slated to take one day stretches out to one week as experimentation with reds becomes an essential of the project.  Her sister is quite frustrated.

 V’s are creative agents of change, ready to move on to the next assignment.  They may even abandon the project well before the 80% point.  (Hopefully they will assign someone to take it as far as 80% level.)

 F’s will tend to adhere to the 80% Rule in an effort to be cooperative to the mandate given from above. 

  1. Taking it One Step Further

A variation of the application of this principle can be applied to jobs that you do not want to do.  So, to avoid being intimidated, being a procrastinator or being pushed at the last minute, follow these guidelines.  First, do not aim for all the results now.  Instead attack the job with the intention of breaking it into two or three phases, doing an initial easy phase of it first.  Second, be content with this partial approach. Third, do the second (and third) phases a day or two later, etc.

What you can expect is either of two outcomes.  (a) Once you start the job, you will find that somehow you will have put down your awkwardness towards it and want to finish the whole thing. (b) Bit by bit over a short time you will get it all done rather painlessly.

Let’s use some simplistic personal examples:

Your desk, full of unopened envelopes of bills, credit charge statements and receipts, tells you it’s time to do some personal accounting.  Instead of postponing the whole job, perform the preliminary steps of opening the envelopes and discarding the junky attachments. Perhaps you might group some similar items together – the credit statements together, the cash receipts together etc.  A day or so later, complete the job by engaging in the account entries and bill payments.

You have just brought in some laundry from the dry cleaners some of it destined for the bedroom on the third floor of your home but you don’t feel like taking it up there now.  Take step one by placing what must go to the third floor, near the stairway.  Later, when you’re going that way anyway, you can actually carry the materials to their resting place on the third level.

Now for a business example:

You have a report to write for a project assignment which you know will be a huge job.  Your tendency is to put it off until you can give it the time and attention it deserves.  Left undone, you keep postponing it, never finding that large segment of time until the report is almost due.  Then it’s panic and late nights as you put it together hurriedly and not as well as you might like.

Instead, when you are first thinking about the report, sit down and lay out an initial table of contents.  I know, I know, you think it’s too early to do that; you need time for ideas to gel.  Notice that I said ‘initial’ table.  Relax; lay out the contents knowing that you will revise that table later.  I believe three new things will happen:

  1. You will create an organization of the report that will stimulate and enhance your thinking as you formulate your ideas over time.
  2. You will go at least one step further, wanting to write one (or more) particular topics of the report that you are anxious to expound on.
  3. Your ‘rough’ table of contents will prove to be at least 80% accurate when all is said and done…….……which, brings us back to the 80% rule.

In summary, begin with an easy initial task that breaks the ice; later complete the job.

  1. Keeping in Balance

Uncle Len continued his dissertation to Cora and Billy:

“The danger of the rule is misusing it to excuse doing a good job.  In any familiar job, you must seek 100% accuracy otherwise you will end up with sloppiness on sloppiness.  The difference between the two is that the 80% rule applies to a new or speculative task, while 100% rule applies to a known task.  As in most things I hope to share with you, there are no absolutes – the key is to maintain a balance between the two options.”

Well said, Uncle Len!