The Price of Perfect

October 11, 2017

The Swiss cheese method was developed by Alan Lakein to overcome procrastination by breaking tasks into manageable parts however it is an equally effective technique with dauntingly large projects and faced with insufficient time and manpower. 

None of us have sufficient resources to address the pace of business change - we all have day jobs and we also have change jobs. This blog wonders whether in our pursuit of perfect we expend too much additional time (and resources) to nab the less important territory at the edges. Is this justified or in all circumstances actually necessary. Perfect has a cost and we should seek a reasonable return.

As the pace increases and the life of a typical initiative decreases ironically we seek even more data to justify change - this is a project in itself. Ostensibly to mitigate risk but is this really procrastination or a lack of confidence in predicting likely outcomes? This takes time when speed can be of the essence. By the time a project is completed chances are that technology, opinion, or compliance have positioned the problem elsewhere. Evidenced based management may actually be stifling progress in some instances and in these situations how much value do we lose in order to get to perfect?

The Pareto Principle or the 80:20 rule, assumes that most results are determined by a small number of causes; 80 percent of outcomes stem from 20 percent of inputs or less. Extensive research suggests that this principle holds true in many aspects of work.

A neurosurgeon or nuclear physicist of course may have limited use for the principle but when working to influence human behavior efforts are often, at best directional. An "80:20" approach when combined with Swiss cheese project management may significantly improve the effectiveness of many people change initiatives.

For example, why try to anticipate every exception to a new HR policy; respond as they arise noting the precedent for future reference. Launch multi-component initiatives in parts and use the feedback to improve later steps. Don't be intimidated by consultants wanting to "cross every T and dot every I" on compliance projects. Start new training programs where you predict that they will have the most impact and expand later. When comparing pay evaluate only jobs key to sustainability and interpose the rest.

Chasing a perfect solution minimizes risk but an 80:20 approach might be sufficient and knowing when to use it requires comparable skill. HR initiatives do generally not involve life or death and are more likely to be thrown off course by human behavior anyway. Nothing is forever and the next new way, method, or technique is just around the corner. By the time a new initiative gets to working employees (or management) are seeking something different.

Altering group behavior is like golf, there is no perfect. Experiment and take calculated risks, what is the downside? Another opportunity is just around the corner. Keep punching holes in that cheese until all you have left are the bits around the edge and more than likely they don't really matter. If you are an HR practitioner this practical approach may be a quicker path to the strategic table.

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