Saturday, September 25, 2010

Between Good Enough & Perfection

A long time ago, when I was working at AT&T, the company's most profitable business was 800 service. A man at Bell Labs (AT&T's R&D organization) named Roy Weber came up with this crazy idea to bill the called party for a telephone call instead of billing the calling party. He then patented a way for the telephone network to do this. So, AT&T had the patent on all phone calls where the person being called pays the bill.

Prior to that time the calling party always paid for telephone calls. You never paid if someone called you. Customers who called businesses for sales and support paid all long distance charges (even for all the time that they were on hold). Why would a business want to change that and increase its costs? To provide better service than its competitors.

In 1967 AT&T introduced the first toll-free area code, 800, and in its first year of service more than seven million calls were made. Companies began feeling the competitive pressure to make their sales and support numbers toll free (by 1999 more than 30 billion toll-free calls were made in the US) and AT&T had the patent.

In 1984, after the government broke up AT&T, new competitive long distance carriers were assigned blocks of 800 numbers to be sold to their customers. Because each number was assigned to a specific telephone company, customers who wanted to change carriers also had to change numbers. Since many customers had invested substantially in the promotion of their numbers (e.g., 1-800-FLOWERS), they were loathe to change carriers. Since AT&T had all the currently used numbers, it was still able to maintain a rather monopolistic position.

However, that all changed in 1993 with a new regulation called 800-number portability. Simply, the US government enacted a law that forced telephone companies to allow customers to take their numbers with them when they changed carriers. With 800-number portability, AT&T's lock on 800 number service would be over and with 800-number service representing approximately seven billion dollars of revenue annually, the race was on to figure out how to keep all those customers.

Ask Mr. Fields
A corporate-wide task force was commissioned to determine what would be done protect this highly profitable business and I was invited as the R guy from the R&D community. To better understand the customers' perspectives, we interviewed not only our own customers to see what they liked about us, but also, customers of our competitors to see what they didn't like about us. One of the people who came to talk with us was Randy Fields, co-founder and president of Mrs. Fields Cookies. Randy was also the husband of Mrs. (Debbi) Fields.

Randy was a big client of our biggest US competitor MCI. At that time, big client meant fifty-million dollars per year. So, when he came to talk, we had an auditorium full up people there to hear him. Randy entitled his talk, Good Enough Never Is. It was fascinating.

He explained how the dollar amount of the average sale at his Mrs. Fields Cookies was less than that of places like McDonalds and Pizza Hut and therefore, he couldn't afford to hire the caliber of people that those companies could. So, he had to come up with ways to make less expensive people perform better. In a time time before iPhones, Facebook, and ubiquitous email, Randy had figured out how to use the telephone network and voice mail systems to keep everyone in his company on the same page.

Every day, Debbi Fields would send a voicemail to the entire company that talked about intention and focus. Every single employee had a corporate voice-mail box. They used the system to announce new programs and incentives, to communicate company news, to inspire and connect. It wasn't a perfect system. But it was also way more than good enough.

Randy then let us know how, having had a monopolistic hold on 800 service had led to a pervasive good enough attitude among AT&T's employees, and attitude that our competition did not have.

Why Good Enough?
Between piss-poor and perfect, for any task there lie infinitely many gradients of quality. How is it that with so many choices, we tend to gravitate to one of three: don't try at all, good enough, and perfection.

Generally speaking (at the supermarket, at restaurants, theaters, stores and banks, washing dishes or cleaning house), people seem to be in a good enough mode. When you undertake tasks that aren't particularly important or interesting to you, good enough is the way to go.

However, when the task is important, significant or meaningful, good enough, isn't. The thing is this: when we decide not to settle for good enough, we tend to go for perfect. We don't go for a little bit better. We don't go for dramatically improved. We go for perfect or minimally, best.

However, going for perfect tends to lead to nothing at all. Why? Because we've eliminated good enough as a possible outcome and perfect is unobtainable. That leaves only one other choice: nothing.

Prior to the days of home-recording studios, you had to book time in a commercial studio to create a high quality recording. Recording studios were expensive. So, you prepared and planned to ensure that you would leave with finished product in hand. When high-quality home recording became a possibility, my musician friends and I all lusted for the luxury of being able to take as long as we liked to hone and polish our recordings.

We would talk for hours about what equipment to get, how to set it up, sound-proofing rooms and running wires. Everyone I knew maxed out his credit card to get what he needed to build his personal recording paradise.

The crazy thing was that given all that time, the productivity level of everyone fell through the floor. No one finished anything. Because perfect had become a theoretical possibility (you could take as long as you wanted), we felt compelled to pursue it. However, it was only theoretically possible. Even when you thought you'd achieved it, you'd play the recording for a friend who would point out that the bass drum seemed a bit off or the vocal too washed out.

And then back to the studio you would go fruitlessly pursuing perfection.

Just Finish Something
One of the things I really enjoy about writing these posts is that they've helped me find the middle ground between good enough and perfect. Deciding to post something five or six days a week no matter what places perfection safely out of range. Since I'm also of the mind that good enough never is, that leaves two choices: nothing at all or something in between. For me, discovering the space between has been remarkably rich and rewarding.

At first, I might use the phrase continuous improvement, but I'm not sure that each day is improved. Instead, I think I would use the phrase continuous learning. Ultimately, I think that daily finding the middle ground has helped me in my development of passion with a loose grip. Whereas good enough is more an act of surrender or giving up, the ground between is more an act of letting go and being really good with it.

Do you ever find yourself caught between good enough and perfect? Is your answer the fruitless pursuit of perfection? Is it nothing at all? How do you find the space between?

Happy Saturday,

1 comment:

  1. I LOOOOOVVEE! this blog. I suppose I could write a long, well considered comment about what specifically i like and how it relates to my life, but I'll just leave it at that. That's good enough, right?


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