About twenty-five years ago I was working for a company where the CEO was a wild man. I don’t mean a Robinson Crusoe, beard down to his belt, living on a tropical island-kind of wild man; I mean a guy who expressed some great ideas in the most unexpected ways. And among my favorite of his expressions was the following:
“If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.”
Now on the surface of it, that might not seem like a terribly wise business mantra. But let me give you some background as to when and where I initially heard it said.
It was in a technology company; it was the late 80s or early 90s and I had just joined their marketing department. The timing of my arrival just happened to coincide with the early planning stages for a major trade show we were to attend. And the topic of conversation was how we were going to present ourselves at this conference.
Now keep in mind – this was “back in the day” when if someone said “computer”, the name that popped first into everyone’s head was IBM. And tradeshows were serious affairs; “doing something bold” at your booth usually meant that you opted for a yellow tie instead of a red one to go with your blue suit. In fact, at my preceding job I had once had the gall to ask the marketing manager there “what color suit” should I wear at an upcoming conference and received the helpful answer “Any color you like – as long it’s blue”.
That answer didn’t sit well with me, and I bided my time until I was in a position – at a different company, of course – to try to do something about it.
So when I realized that my arrival at this new company – in a position of some influence – coincided with their planning for an upcoming event, I couldn’t resist the temptation to suggest that we try something a little daring at the upcoming show. I suggested that we arrange our booth – and staff – to look like an old-fashioned, neighborhood Italian restaurant. Bistro tables. Red-and-white checkered tablecloths. Menus instead of the usual product data sheets. And booth staff dressed up like waiters and waitresses.
The reaction was phenomenal. Everyone hated it.
Well – almost everyone. The CEO, normally a very active participant in corporate discussions, was surprisingly quiet. He was listening to everyone else in the conference room telling me why my idea wouldn’t work. Heck – “wouldn’t work” was how the nicest of my new colleagues were phrasing it; others were openly questioning my sanity, my employment, and the very distinct possibility that I was overly self-medicating.
And yet when I started listening – really listening – to peoples’ comments, I realized that it wasn’t the “restaurant theme” that everyone objected to. It was that fact that everyone felt that we couldn’t do justice to that theme. The objections ranged from “we can’t actually serve food or wine”, to “we don’t have time to change our existing booth graphics” to look like restaurant menus.
That’s when our CEO uttered those unforgettable words:
“Well you know . . . I kind of like the whole restaurant approach, and I think that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.”
Needless to say that broke the tension in the room pretty well and it was a good two or three minutes before all of us regained our composure . . . not to mention our chairs. And then some poor soul asked our CEO:
“You mean you want us to do a bad job?”
And that’s when our CEO explained what he meant. Many organizations shy away from bold new initiatives because they are afraid of failure. That’s nothing new. But our CEO explained that in his experience, many organizations chose not to try something new because they were afraid that they weren’t going to be able to do as good a job on it as they’d like to.
That’s right – there’s “fear of failure” and then there’s “fear of incomplete success” – and it’s the latter of these that our CEO was talking about. You see, nobody wants to undertake a project thinking that he or she will be able to get it to only 65% (or so) complete. As humans, we are trained to envision the end-result of a project and that end result vision is rarely, if ever, imperfect or incomplete.
But that’s exactly how we should envision many of our business initiatives.
Because — when it comes down to choosing between a project imperfectly done and a project not attempted at all, it’s better to try and partially succeed rather than to not try at all. A project attempted can be evaluated, improved upon, or even abandoned. As long as you set your expectations so that “imperfection is acceptable”, your finished project will be good enough to fairly evaluate its current success and its potential for even greater success in the future.
So – the next time you have the opportunity to try something new but are concerned that you might not have all the resources to “do it right”, go ahead and do it anyway. After all, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.
(Oh yes – and we DID end up doing the Italian restaurant theme at the show that year and it was a huge success.)
Today’s guest post comes from Don Farber. Don writes frequently for the Employer Solutions blog and is a leading spokesperson on the value of business activity monitoring. Don has over 25 years’ experience in the front-office and back-office software industry and is co-founder and Vice President of Vineyardsoft Corporation. Don is a frequent speaker at industry events and author of numerous white papers on such subjects as identifying support rep burnout, enabling organizations to become more ‘data-driven’, and cost-effective compliance.