In praise of quick and dirty: when the pursuit of excellence is the enemy of success

Increasingly I believe that we in the media business doom ourselves by our devotion to quality. Before you get out the gunpowder, let me explain myself. I love excellence. Awesomeness is, well, awesome. But the premature pursuit of excellence can kill you.

I'm going to pick on my friend Howard Owens as an example, and I hope he won't mind. Howard is a multi-talented guy, but he is no Roger Black or Mario Garcia. He runs a website called The Batavian in upstate New York.

The site's design is adequate. It's not beautiful. It's not stunning. It could easily be both beautiful and stunning, because both Roger and Mario do beautiful and sometimes stunning design work, and they can be hired.

So Howard could run to his bank, take out a big loan, hire somebody like Roger or Mario to do the design, then hire some contract programmers to convert the design into a website theme, and make his website presentationally excellent.

So why doesn't he do this? Because there's no ROI. No return on that investment. In fact, that investment would likely crush his business.

The unpleasant reality of business is that it's all about money. If you're going to try to build a new business, you'd better obsess about your pennies. And here's the thing: If you divert energy, time and money away from the things that count and into things that please you but don't count very much, you will fail.

If the typical media company sets out to do something new, the process usually follows this pattern:

  1. A committee is formed.
  2. The committee looks at a lot of work other people have done (benchmarking).
  3. Many lists of features and functions are made.
  4. Committee members attempt to draw examples.
  5. Someone comes to their senses and brings in an actual designer.
  6. The designer creates sample designs.
  7. The committee critiques the designs.
  8. The committee debates at length and demands changes in pursuit of conflicting visions of excellence.
  9. If not totally fatigued, GOTO line 6.
  10. Now that the design process has been halted by fatigue, the implementors are brought in.
  11. It is discovered that the arbitrary design doesn't respect the realities of implementation.
  12. Much time and energy disappears into the implementation work.
  13. The committee continues to invent new ways to make the product better and interrupts the implementation with the new really-great ideas.
  14. If not totally fatigued, GOTO line 12.
  15. Key features and functions are cut because the project has taken far too long and is way over budget -- if there was a budget.
  16. The new product is pushed into production.
  17. The company begins to discover whether the whole idea was brilliant, disastrous or somewhere in between.
  18. It's somewhere in between -- but it has no chance of covering its development costs.

The guys from Harvard Business School, which of course is devoted to excellence, will tell you this is a path to your doom. In fact, they have already told you that. And it's not exactly a new concept in the world of software development, either.

So why do we keep doing it?

Because we care, and because we want to do the right thing, and because "good enough" just seems wrong. We're motivated by what Daniel Pink calls "challenge and mastery," and mastery has to do with excellence.

The startup guy possessed by what he thinks is a Big Idea will follow a shorter path. If he has the skills, it will look like this:

  1. Look at what other people have done (benchmarking).
  2. Make some notes.
  3. Grab cheap, free, off-the-shelf tools.
  4. Put together a rough working prototype.
  5. Launch.
  6. Gather real-world results.
  7. Modify the product.
  8. If not either rich or bankrupt, GOTO line 6.

He doesn't follow this shorter path because he doesn't care about quality or excellence. He does it because he's desperate and doesn't want to starve.

If you're paying really close attention, you'll notice that lines 6 through 8 aren't in the big media company's process. That's a shame, because they're the important ones. Pre-launch business plans are always wrong. Or at least almost always. You can't argue your way to success in a committee meeting, or design your way to success on a whiteboard. You have to execute and iterate.

Quick and dirty doesn't have to mean ugly, or badly implemented, or sloppy. We have within our grasp today cheap and free tools that make it easy for a nimble developer to do work that is awesome and excellent without breaking the bank. But we have to be on guard against the seductiveness of excellence, and always keep our focus on the reality that doing the wrong thing really well won't lead us to success.




Thanks for the shout out. You're absolutely right -- I could invest more in design. I even know a very good designer who would probably give me break on the price. But I don't see the point right now. If I did launch a new template it would be to correct some Drupal implementation flaws in the current theme, not to -- per se -- make it prettier. But, I'm really writing to punctuate the point that without focusing on big production values, my wife and I have a site here that is making money and growing audience very well. Check quantcast and compare and While they have a print product to promote their site and they cover three counties, we're online only and cover only one county. We're neck-in-neck in audience recently, and The Batavian is gaining ground. Keeping it basic has worked very well for us, I think. Again, thanks for the notice, Steve.

Borrowing from something I once read somewhere (or heard on "The West Wing," ... whatever) with regards to democracy: "Quick and dirty" is the worst strategy ever envisioned ... except for all the rest. Gee whiz, suits in the suites. Your website isn't a canvas that gets condemned to the dumpster because it's been ruined by a single stray brushstroke. It's made of bits and bytes and strands of code and scripts. Anything that you break on Tuesday can be fixed on Wednesday. I lived through too many death-by-committee creations to every endure the torture again. What Howard is doing ain't always pretty, but at least it's getting done.

Good points. Thanks. Like many of your readers I've found myself in the trenches of that 18-point process more times than I care to remember. Clayton Christensen writes about the "Innovator's Dilemma", about how our existing corporate management structures were designed and tasked (perhaps Inadvertently) to resist change, not to embrace it. Elephants, consequently, don't dance. Even the WSJ this week posited "The End of Management." (The article is available without the pay wall at the time I'm writing this.) In addition to these systemic issues, I see a lot of corporate innovation efforts get stuck in the mud of what I call "smartest guy in the room" syndrome, or as you more politely phrased it "conflicting visions of excellence." Freud talked about what he termed "The narcissism of minor differences." Effective collaboration is stymied when team members (usually the execs) ignore the 89% on which they agree and get wrapped around the axle on the 11% that is different from their unique golden vision. Innovator's don't get tangled up in authorship, turf and credit. The urgency of actually executing is too fierce to attend such petty notions.

Wait, you lost me, how did "excellence" get equated with an 18-point recipe for failure? There's lies your problem. Excellence is not over-engineered, process-over-product, "best-practice" driven, design-by-checkbox operation, which is what you basically described in your 18-point list. Excellence is, to be blunt, "making it really f***ing good." But how often does the pursuit of the "quick and dirty" preclude us from making it really f***ing good? I'd say, often. Why? Two reasons. First inexperienced leadership. Experience and skill are what makes decisions like "is this good enough" possible. If you don't have the experience or skill (or ideally both) then your "good enough" probably won't be. Second is metrics. Metrics are the crutch for weak leaders and there are simply no metrics for what could have been. No metrics, no problem, right? Allow me to pick on your friend, Howard Owens, one more time. In his latest post he discovered that, in his words: the "reporter armed with nothing more than a point-and-shoot" just wouldn't cut it. Frankly experience should have told him that on The Batavian's first day, but it didn't. He had to take the time and learn it. He's lucky, a lot of online operations don't have that luxury. So what finally prompted him to take the plunge and plop down the cash for a fancy DSLR? I assume hard won experience ("hmmm, these photos suck") combined with skill ("do I have the cash?") and a little risk ("I should totally buy it") combined to make it happen. I wonder though how much his point-and-shoot photos cost him since The Batavian's launch. By extension I wonder now how much is his design costing him as well Maybe he really should call Roger or Mario ;). This is what worries me about posts like this that spout generalities like "excellence is the enemy of success" and the like. That's too simple. It's a lot harder than that. Good, quality professionals are what leads to success, not cutting corners with underpaid, half trained people who think that the magic bullet is nothing more than downloading a Drupal theme.

It's been four months since this post was made, yet I keep revisiting the page to reread it over-and-over because the conflict between what Steve posted and Marc's comment hit very close to home. As the web shoveler at a small market TV station, when it comes to the Internet I hear two things over and over: #1 - "Innovation is great... when somebody else is doing it" (aka don't reinvent the wheel) #2 - "If we're going to do something, we're going to do it right" It comes down to resources (or lack of resources willing to be comitted), and our ongoing argument in a nutshell is basically this: Are we willing to sacrifice a pretty design now in order to get quality content? If we have great content but the design looks like horrible and nobody can ever find anything, will people keep coming back? Will anybody pay to sponsor a pretty site filled with crap? Etc. I guess it's the Internet's version of "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" But, at some point I think you have to say "screw it... I can boil and eat the egg NOW without a lot of extra effort and time".

I just read Marc's comment for the first time. I think he misunderstands what I'm saying. Point-and-shoot was "good enough" Using P&S didn't, per se, cost us anything. I could still be doing it today and be fine. With one exception, covering sports, P&S meets all basic reportorial needs. The need for something beyond P&S are rare. But if I wanted to better cover those rare situation and also cover sports (something I do not consider critical to our mission/strategy), then I needed a DSLR. The DSLR has proven proven to be a boon, but in a lot of ways that really don't have much to do with journalism. Readers love my landscape/barn art pictures. The local hospital bought 15 of my photos for their new surgical wing (the money will be invested in upgrading my camera body, going to a Nikon D7000). Having a DSLR has been a journalistic improvement, but I wouldn't call it a mission critical improvement. We could get by with P&S if we had to. That said, my recommendation to other small, independent publishers remains the same: Invest in a good DSLR if you can. The difference is worth it (if you take the time to learn how to use it properly). But Marc shouldn't read too much into what I'm saying to say P&S isn't "good enough." It is. And it's a fine place to start if you can't afford the DSLR.

Aw well, I was gonna let this post sit in the annals of history, but since it's picking up some traction again... It's very interesting that this whole topic has been a hot one of late where I work too. My concern is with the people who use concepts like "excellence is the enemy of success" or "good enough" not as a way to cull the over-developed, over-thought and over-processed where said culling is needed, but more as an excuse. An excuse to suck. This is what happens far too often. My personal take is that if you strive for excellence -- not the "good enough" but the "great" -- and through whatever reason you fall short, then you are still good enough. If your goal to start with is simply "good enough" and you fall short, well, you're failing. Is it any surprise most newspapers are failing? (Oh don't give me that "the revenue picture at most newspapers is improving" BS, we all know that revenues continue to fall). This, however, doesn't mean that you wallow in the minutia to deliver the so-called perfect solution, wasting time, resources and money while your competitors run circles around you. I use terms like "strive" and "shoot for" deliberately. The minimum bar is "good enough", it is not the target. And Howard, I used you for an example because the timing was right. I don't think you're the type to strive for mediocracy because if you were you wouldn't have bought the DSLR at all.

It struck me reading your post, Marc, that one thing I may never have explained well enough -- and maybe still won't get right -- is my concept of "good enough." I think my concept/definition is straight out of "Innovator's Solution," though I doubt it was ever put this way. "Good enough" is about product design and strategy. It's not about the output of the individual worker. If you're a widget maker and you decide to start a business making low-cost, "good enough" widgets to disrupt your competitor, you wouldn't A) make a product so inferior it didn't deliver on your marketing promises -- good enough doesn't mean cheap crap; B) You wouldn't hire lazy, inefficient, bumbling idiots to assemble it for you either. If you're designing a disruptive news strategy and believe that to start a P&S camera is "good enough," you wouldn't ask your employees to go out and take any old crap pictures. You would do your best to train them to mind the rule of thirds, get the right exposure, use white balance, ensure the main subject is in focus, etc. Using P&S in this example is a strategy, not an outcome. One of the problems I've found in the news business is it is very hard to pursue a "good enough" strategy that communicates to employees, "this is a frame work; we still want you to do your best work within this frame work." I hope I've explained the difference sufficiently between "good enough" as a strategy vs. "good enough" as an outcome.

Let me put it another way -- Let's say you were going to start a community web site that was going to do nothing but cover the community through pictures. there would be very little text. You would just photograph everything going on in the community you could. But A) you didn't have a lot of money; B) you weren't sure this idea was going to work; C) mean, rather than spend a lot of money on market research, you're going to take the "fast company" approach, just launch and try to achieve profitability as quickly as possible (should always be the goal of the smart disruptive innovator). So you and one other person start out with a Mac with iPhoto and a Canon P&S camera. All told, you're start up expenses are under $3,500. You would make sure the person you hire to help you is fully trained in the equipment. You would train him or her fully on good picture taking and the key elements of good photojournalism. You wouldn't just send the person out into the community with no training and say, "good luck." You want the best quality with the available equipment and within the frame work of what your strategic goals are. You believe, I should mention, that you can sell photos and eventually get a little advertising revenue, if you can post at least 250 photos a day. This is a quantity over quality venture, because quantity drives traffic, interest and more pictures means more pictures to sell. Since the margin on each picture sold is low, you need to achieve profits through volume. This starts to go well, and in six months, you're profitable. And you've got some money to spend. So now you buy each of you a Lumix DF1 and a copy of Lightroom. Readers immediately notice the improvement in quality. They start buying more pictures and sharing them more often with their friends. Profits take a big jump. So now you go out and get nice Nikon DSLRs, but probably not yet something like a D3. You also get a couple of good lenses. Now you're able to expand the range of the photos you can post -- taking in high school sports and more indoor events (because you have more options in low-light situations). This broader range of photos leads to more profits. So now you higher an experience professional photographer to help expand even further the range of photographic products you're able to offer, especially to higher end customers. To me, that's an outline of a "good enough" strategy. It's not about creating an excuse to produce crap. It's about having a smart business strategy. It's also, to Steve's point, about not getting locked into the position that "if we don't have pro photographers with Nikon D3s out there producing only the very best pictures, we can't launch this product." "If we can't do it to the highest standards, with the best equipment, then it's not worth doing" is a deadly trap many in the news industry fall into.

Sounds like to me the three of us are saying the same thing, just in different ways. Marc, I love the terms "strive" and "shoot for" as well. Unfortunately, they only work for those who can look at the big picture but still act now. And I've met very few people who can do that. It's a matter of getting people to buy in and act immediately, while understanding "this is good enough... for now". wouldn't ask your employees to go out and take any old crap pictures. Aye, I wouldn't, but many, upon regurgitating sound bites like "great is the enemy of the good", "good enough", "fast follower" or " to the rest" would. And sadly, in my experience, do. It is of course more complex than pithy sayings. You do, at times, need that metaphorical DSLR or 18-point checklist and sometimes all you need is that P&S and a Drupal install. Wisdom, skill and experience is what makes it possible to successfully plot a course between the two. And that's the part, more often than not, that's usually missing.

I'd rather have a business leader in this industry living by "good enough" rather than not, even its pitfalls.