Its been several days now since I first saw this blog post on the Harvard Business Review site. At first I wanted to enter a comment, but I felt my reaction may have been too visceral and I would have said something stupid. I also thought that a small comment would not do my thoughts justice. But everyday that has passed since then, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. So I’m writing a blog post today to refute it and hopefully move on.
I’m delaying providing the link to you because I want to give you some context and point out some irony before you jump off to read that post. Here’s the context: I’m sitting in my home reading on my iPad. I’m reading news in an app called Flipboard, which aggregates content from all over the internet and displays it to me in a magazine-type format. Flipboard is an excellent example of why the iPad has been so successful. I flip open the Harvard Business Review Blog. My internet connection is downloading at more than 25 megabits per second, so articles are displaying fast. Flipboard calmly displays this blog entry: Average Work is Usually Good Enough. Here is the essence of the post; I highlighted the part that set me off:
Some of us, however, take perfectionism to the extreme, and it can turn us into neurotic workaholics who can’t stop until every detail is just right. This isn’t the best way to succeed. A better approach — and this may seem counter-intuitive — is to settle for being average. That’s right: average. It’s more efficient than tweaking, and tweaking, and tweaking our work in the hopes of reaching a level of greatness that we probably won’t come close to anyway.
Yikes, that has to be the worst advice ever. This is what has driven me crazy for the last few days. I’m going to make some points below about why I think this is awful, but let me point out the irony in my story:
- I’m using an iPad, an example of something so above average that it is putting pressure on traditional laptops to stay competitive.
- The app is Flipboard, which as I said is an excellent, above average application.
- My internet connection is really fast – three years ago I was happy with 1 or 2 mbps.
- Finally, the post was on Harvard Business Review, which is known all over the world as excellent.
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I’m glad that Apple, Flipboard, Cox Communications, and all the rest didn’t settle for average. I’m ecstatic that they spend time tweaking and tweaking to make their products better than average and as perfect as possible.
When I look back on history, I’m also glad that the following people and companies – just to name a few – didn’t settle for average. Its too bad that our elementary, secondary and universities can’t teach us the detailed history of exceptional people. With all that has to be taught, we are only told of their results. By seeing only the results, we assume they were genius people who just had a natural talent that others couldn’t match. But if you get a chance to read details about these people, you will find that they did not settle for average, that in fact they tweaked and tweaked. They worked hard at what they built and required much effort to succeed.
- Thomas Edison is probably the greatest inventor of all time. When creating the lightbulb, he actually conducted over a thousand experiments to figure out which parts to use and how to build the bulb the right way. It didn’t just come to him in flash of brilliance, pardon the pun. Ditto for the telegraph, electric distribution, the phonograph, etc.
- Jonas Salk “invented” the polio vaccine in 1955. Actually Dr. Salk started working on the problem in 1948. It took 7 years and lot of tweaking to get that first vaccine right.
- I worked at Eli Lilly right after I graduated from Purdue University. What I found there were scientists who spent years experimenting and tweaking to “discover” a drug well before it went to any type of clinical trial. I saw first hand how samples of plants were gathered from all over the world and sent back to Indianapolis for testing, looking for some component that could be exploited for a new cure.
- Guglielmo Marconi started working on radio transmission in 1894. He did the first transmission across the Atlantic ocean in 1901. That’s seven years of tweaking before he got to that point.
Yes, all these people were smart, but what set them apart was that they didn’t settle for average. I hope you won’t either.
So here is a link to the post: Average Work is Usually Good Enough. If you look deeper at the blog post, if refers to another post as its source. That other post talks mainly about trying to avoid problems with perfectionists. Sometimes perfectionists can get caught up in tweaking to the point of not producing anything. I think the HBR blog I linked to totally missed the point. Yes, perfectionism taken to the extreme can be bad sometimes. But don’t settle for average trying to avoid problems with perfectionists.
There I feel better. And you won’t believe how many times I tweaked this post until I got it just right for me.
What they should have said is try your absolute hardest to get it right…but be reasonable and know that perfection is in the eye of the beholder, failure sometimes happens before YOUR perfection can occur
My quibble with your examples of people who didn’t settle for average: Edison may have been more well known, however Nikola Tesla was the greatest inventor of his time. And, if it wasn’t for Tesla, Marconi wouldn’t have been able to make his radio transmissions – it was Tesla’s patents that allowed that to happen. The “Father of the Radio?” Nikola Tesla. As I think about it, there is no “Edison” or “Marconi” units of measure. But we certainly have a “Tesla.”
Thanks Gregg, Tesla is another great example. With unlimited time and space, I could have listed hundreds of people.
I think it depends how you define average. Let’s take the example of your iPad. It does define the standard. Every other tablet will be compared to the iPad, therefore it is the average tablet.
While developing it, they certainly had to compromise. If the specs they had imagined were reached, they had to stop and get it to the market. The developers still had hundreds of ideas to make it better, but one day they just had to start to sell the first version and work on a better next version. That is what the author meant. Not in a sense of being average your whole life or lazy. No, getting things done in an efficient way, were absolute perfection is either not reachable, or the price is just too high, or doesn’t even make sense. Quick ‘n dirty is sometimes the better way.
To take your other examples. Thomas Edison had to make those experiments until his light bulb had a service life that made sense. It still wasn’t perfect and they got better over the years. But this progess came with experience, he could not have done that without millions of bulbs in service.
Jonas Salk had to work that long, because it either worked or not. For a vaccine the protection ratio must be very high, to be effective in a way to eliminate the disease globaly, and as we have seen just recently, polio isn’t gone for good like pox. It wasn’t perfect when it came out, but it was good enough to save millions of people and got better over time, also largely due to experience in the field. Something you can not do, sitting for years in your lab. BTW it just one of two techniques of vaccination against polio.
Marconi showed his radio as soon as it was good enough to be shown. That took a while. But that has nothing to do with average or not, because there wasn’t anything else to define the standard. When it worked, it worked. And you can’t deny the fact, that radios got a lot better recently.
There are millions of examples, where problems were solved in a efficient way that made everybody happy. Sometimes very ugly solutions. But they solve a problem here and now and waiting for the perfect solution that might never turn up, because the inventor got a fixation problem, isn’t a solution, nope, that is a failure.
The problem is one of confusion between what you should aim for and what you should be satisfied with. You should aim for perfection,for absolutely amazing and incredibly useful. That way, when you have done your best and still the real world drags you down, you will still be left with pretty damn good.
Years ago, I had someone in IBM development say that they didn’t aim to meet 100% of customer needs, but only 80%. That explained so very much about the issues they faced. You have to at least aim for 100%. I haven’t read the article yet, but never aim for average, even if you sometimes have to settle for it eventually. I wouldn’t have the business I do or the products I do if I aimed for anything less than miraculous, and I wish more would do the same. (My worry about Apple, by the way, is that they are starting to merely aim for 100% instead of %150.)
Thanks for commenting. Yes, there are times when you have to settle and quick/dirty is just fine. However, those time should be the exception, not the rule. Clearly products and innovations change over time and hopefully get better based on field experience. That is another form of tweaking and not settling for average.
Thanks for commenting Jennifer. You are absolutely correct. I think everybody may have a different idea of what average is to them. I think the original poster was probably trying to say know your limits and your are more efficient staying within them. I like to think everyone should try to stretch beyond those limits even if you don’t get there very often.
Good comment Ben. I like to equate your story with the old saying, “…Its good enough for the government.” To me good enough for the government is not good enough. I suspect that many people involved in the federal healthcare exchange website said “its good enough for the government” before it blew up.