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Better is the enemy of good enough…

The Management Consultant as any professional strives for the best result. Whether she/he drafts a proposal, makes a presentation or creates a final report, there is continuously room for further improvement and putting in more effort is always an option. These type of situations led Cyril Northcote Parkinson to his famous observation in 1955: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion” which is now known as Parkinson’s Law.

As this proves true for most work, it is particularly applicable to consultancy work where every project gets to a point where better becomes the enemy of good enough. Once good enough is established and to avoid unnecessary work and the risk of actually making things worse, the activities would best be stopped instead of dragging on until the deadline (or beyond).

But isn’t good enough a subjective and quite arbitrary quality standard? And how would introducing such a standard contribute to focusing effort and ensuring the most efficient way to get to the required level of quality?

For the deliverables of a consultant the answer to that is surprisingly simple. He should just pre-define what good enough means for each deliverable. It is therefore a prerequisite that there is a Design phase before the actual Writing starts. Part of this Design is to be explicit about what good enough means for every component of the deliverable. And then it becomes quite objective. A deliverable is listed as finalized when all the pre-defined requirements are met. This could be a long and diverse list but the Analysis should ensure it is an exhaustive list. The list contains guidance specific enough should be specific enough for a writer to create the deliverable and for a reviewer to assess the quality of the work. This should even be possible when neither of them was involved in the earlier stages of the project.

Focus on ‘good enough’ for all…

Usually a report, a proposal or an article can be broken down into several components like chapters or even pages/slides. For each of these components a Design is created and during the Writing stage, the project keeps track of the status of each. For that a very simple rating mechanism applies:

  • 0 – no input available yet
  • 1 – some generic input compiled, no real attempt to a storyline yet
  • 2 – first attempt to a draft response but not yet passed the review
  • 3 – review provided a tick in the box for all requirements listed and therefore “good enough”

Using the above ratings gives clear insight in where the the team should invest the available effort.

Nobody will put effort in any component with a rating “3” before all are at least at the same rating. In my experience defining the required quality upfront can bring the total effort down quite drastically. And by being very explicit upfront it increases consistency. It also allows for flexibility in involving ad-hoc writers. This is especially interesting in an environment where multiple project run in parallel. By systematically rating all components at every iteration, this approach also gives insight in the quality of the writers involved. Those who need less iterations are the better writers. Last but not least this approach helps to motivate writers since it avoids rework significantly. Ultimately it leads to deliverables without major iterations: it is all about doing it First Time Right.

…or strive for perfect again?

If everything reached level “3” with still time left before the deadline, a core team can always decide to comply to Parkinson’s Law. I would recommend against it as the added value of the effort put in at this stage is generally low and activities are error-prone: consistency is usually the first victim when making last minute changes.

(This post is a sequel to Collaborative writing: a skill or an art form?)