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In Search of the "Good-Enough" Leader

By Lonnie Pacelli

On a recent project my company was working with a frozen seafood manufacturer to help them bring a specialty frozen seafood product to market. A huge component of getting this project done was the packaging; it had to be eye-popping and appealing while protecting the frozen seafood pieces inside. After a number of design sessions with the packaging manufacturer, we received the finished packaging. What was initially exuberance during the design session turned into disappointment when we saw the finished product. Some of the graphics were a bit blurry, a re-sealable zipper wasn't included, and a clear window to view the contents inside was missing. Our emotions went from disappointment to anger as the manufacturer told us it would be a number of weeks before a new delivery of the packaging could be done. If we took this route, a key delivery to a very important customer of ours wouldn't be met. What a pickle.

As we thought through our dilemma, we started thinking about what was "good-enough." While some of the problems with the packaging were irritating, they were largely cosmetic and didn't impact the quality or taste of the product. We ultimately decided that we could still use the packaging by making one change which we were able to implement in-house. Through this process, we found that we had to mentally adjust our expectations from "perfection" to "good-enough" in order to meet our commitments to our customers and get the product out in time. Not the optimal choice, but certainly a workable one.

As leaders, we are constantly faced with deciding which tasks to do and how to apply resources to those tasks. There are rare occasions where stars align and we are able to get everything done exactly the way we want it with the resources given to us. Most of the time, though, we have to decide not only what to do but what not to do. This is where the good-enough leader comes in. Good-enough leaders are able to get more done with the resources given to them because they know that there comes a point where the incremental effort (or what I like to refer to as "polishing the apple") just isn't worth the expense required to achieve the effort. Good-enough leaders are able to define clearly what good-enough means for any task being worked on and are able to get the team to self-check on achieving good-enough. Simply put, good-enough leaders get more done because they know not only when to start, but when to stop.

Adopting a good-enough mindset means doing the following:

  • Establish good-enough guidelines up-front: When taking on a project or task, take time to discuss with the team where the good-enough line lives. As example, if the goal is to prepare a presentation for management, it may be acceptable to have different fonts on different slides but it is not acceptable for data to be incorrect or for the presentation to have spelling errors. Establishing clear guidelines with the team (and yourself) helps to reduce rework and reduces the likelihood of misunderstandings on what good-enough means as it relates to your specific project or task.

  • Separate the "must-haves" from the "nice-to-haves": For good-enough to work, it's super important to get a clear understanding of what needs are absolutely necessary to deliver your end product and to separate the "must-haves" from the "nice-to-haves." As you are assessing each need, ask, "What is the absolute worst thing that will happen if we don't meet this need?"   Then, decide if you can live with the worst case.

  • Align expectations with your customers or stakeholders: As you are defining your must -haves, include your customer or stakeholders in the process to ensure you aren't missing a must-have need or mis-categorizing a nice-to-have as a must-have. Key to this is allowing the customer to see the benefit of being good-enough.   The benefit could be a reduced cost on a contract, taking on an extra project, or potentially implementing a couple of the highest priority nice-to-have needs.  

  • Adopt a "good-enough" mantra: Working to good-enough doesn't stop at needs definition. In our day-to-day work we all, as leaders, are faced with decisions on where to apply resources, what things to do, and what things to not do. When you adopt and maintain a good-enough mantra with your team, the team will start thinking in good-enough terms and learn how to draw the good-enough line without your coaching and prodding.

  • Encourage others to cry foul when a team member starts polishing the apple: Adopting a good-enough mantra is a great first step; using the mantra day-in and day-out is the next step. It is easy for a team member to become obsessed with a project or task and to want to spend a lot of time making something perfect. When you spot someone spending time on a task which appears to be beyond good-enough, ask "is this good-enough?" Also, be open to a team member challenging you with the good-enough question. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

  • Don't accept "good-enough" as an excuse for substandard quality: being good-enough means you understand what must be done and you work to the good-enough line. It isn't an up-front excuse for shoddy workmanship or unacceptable quality. As example, a developer cannot use a "good-enough" mantra as an excuse for not testing a program he or she has written. Work should still be performed to whatever professional specifications are applicable to your organization.

Be a good-enough leader. You'll get more done because your team will make better choices on where to spend time and will consciously avoid polishing the apple. Think good-enough; it works.

Read other articles and learn more about Lonnie Pacelli.

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