Monday Mornings with Madison

Excellence versus ‘Good Enough’

In the world of software development, there is a concept called the Principle of Good Enough.  It favors quick-and-simple software designs over elaborate systems designed by committees.  Once a quick-and-simple design is deployed, it then evolves as needed, driven by user requirements.  Some good examples of this kind of design include the development of the Ethernet and the World Wide Web.  That is why most software have newer iterations such as Internet Explorer 8 and Microsoft Office Word 2007.

But this philosophy of ‘good enough’ is not new… it goes back hundreds of years.  Voltaire once said that “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”  This idea of creating something from the start that is not ‘the best’ but simply ‘good enough’ has increasingly bled into other areas of development and manufacturing.  In fact, ‘good enough’ has been adopted as a business model where the focus was to create a new product based on an existing product but with far fewer features… literally something that is ‘less good’ but just ‘good enough.’  And, this approach to business has been successful in some cases.  There is, however, one problem with the Principle of Good Enough.  This approach is not always effective.  Sometimes ‘good enough’ is simply not good enough.  When it comes to companies and their work product, how do managers know when to strive for excellence and when it’s okay to deliver goods or services that are just ‘good enough’?

When Is ‘Good Enough’ Enough?

First, let’s consider a tangible example of a successful business created following the ‘good enough’ principle.  In 2001, Jonathan Kaplan and Ariel Braunstein, noticing that 181 million cheap disposable cameras were sold in the U.S. compared to about 7 million expensive digital cameras, tried to create a recyclable cheap (priced at about $20) digital camera that could take photos that were ‘good enough’.  Their business model relied on people returning the $20 cameras to stores in order to get prints and a CD.  The retailers were supposed to send the used boxes back to the manufacturer which would refurbish them.  The concept failed because people either did not return the digital cameras or hacked them to get the digital photos.  How is this an example of a successful business?  It wouldn’t be if the story stopped there.  It didn’t.  Although their idea failed, Kaplan and Braunstein made another discovery.  They learned that, unlike the camera market which already had cheap disposable cameras, the video camcorder market had no such ‘good enough’ option.  All video camcorders at that time were very expensive.  Applying lessons learned from their failed effort, Kaplan and Braunstein developed a new video camcorder stripped of bells and whistles that shot simple digital video footage that was ‘good enough’.  It was called The Flip, and it sold over a million units its first year.  Designed with very few features and priced at about $129, most people could afford The Flip and could learn to use it in less than a minute.  It was the opposite of the best video camera on the market… it was just ‘good enough’ and it created an entirely new entry-level video camcorder segment in the market.

When Is ‘Good Enough” Not Enough?

But this approach doesn’t always work.  The Principle of Good Enough is not appropriate where it is not possible to evolve a system or product over time, or where optimal functionality is required from the start.  For companies providing a product or service that cannot evolve over time or where the level of quality must be excellent each and every time, the Principle of Good Enough falls short.

Why?  Because human nature is always assessing the quality of goods and services.  From handbags to homes and from cars to commercial properties, people are constantly judging the quality of workmanship, components, location, functionality, design, service and every other aspect that can be measured and graded.  Quality is the reason a Mercedes Benz costs more than a Hundai. Quality is the reason a Mercedes Benz costs more than a Hyundai.

Control Expectations

The first step, then, is to set and control expectations of what the product is meant to be.  For items such as the Flip video camcorder, such products were designed, promoted and sold specifically as ‘good enough.’  Buyer expectations were set and controlled so that customers understood from the get-go that what they were purchasing, for a much more affordable price, was a video camcorder ‘good enough’ to do the basics and that’s it. When it comes to design and business models, a product can sometimes be intentionally created to be just ‘good enough.’  And it can be improved over time based on buyer feedback, just as The Flip was improved and two years later the manufacturer introduced The Flip Ultra.

Delivering With Excellence

However, when it comes to actually manufacturing or producing and then delivering the product or service, that’s when ‘good enough’ does NOT set the bar high enough.  Customers deserve better.  However, perfection should not be the goal.  Striving for perfection often leads to unsociable behaviors and stress-induced health problems.  Rather, the target should be excellence.  In delivering products or services to customers or clients, excellence should be the goal.  Often, the difference in effort, focus and attention-to-detail between ‘good enough’ and ‘excellence’ is small and attainable.  And excellence pays dividends in highly-satisfied patrons, making the extra effort worthwhile.   Keep in mind that most savvy customers recognize when they are provided with a product or service that is ‘good enough’ rather than ‘excellent’.   ‘Good enough’ says their needs don’t matter.  In those instances, ‘good enough’ isn’t.  The way to think about it is this:  ‘good enough’ is the enemy of excellence. Companies should first determine what product or service they intend to deliver, set client expectations accordingly, and then strive for excellence in delivering that product or service… knowing when to stop reaching for the impossible goal of perfection.

Quote of the Week

“The companies that survive longest are the one’s that work out what they uniquely can give to the world not just growth or money but their excellence, their respect for others, or their ability to make people happy.” Charles Handy

© 2012, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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