Friday, November 11, 2011

From "Good" to "Best"

This is not much of an “eye-opening” post. All of us are aware of the thoughts I’ve put down, but still, this is one of those times when I have been able to relate to these aspects in a compelling, overwhelming manner. And I wish to record them.

I’m comparing myself, and my little bubble of upbringing, schooling, and life in the context of this post. My examples are from my personal experiences.

I’ve realized (quite strongly) that the “secret” to exceptional performance, success, growth, and innovation are:
  1. Never ever settle for “good enough”. The bar is realistically set at the very highest point. To do so, one needs to have an excellent (and objective) grasp on one’s abilities, and that of the team. If planned correctly, and if every-one's skills are utilized to the best, the goal is realizable. And it stays realizable.
  1. Innovation and exceptional performance has little to do with competition, and more to do with the inner-drive to deliver the best service/product for oneself (Hello again, Ayn Rand!). I’ve realized that it has more to do with treating ourselves as the consumer/audience, and creating experiences/end-products that we would genuinely appreciate. I know this was Steve Job’s motto as well, but only recently did I fully relate to this. From where I come from, there is a demarcation made between what “we” get and what “others” get. If we are not direct consumers of something, we compromise and settle on it (Example: even thank-you gifts handed to wedding attendees). The worst part is that people willingly, voluntarily put in their least efforts in instances like this, thereby bringing down the overall quality of an event or product. It’s not about money or the monetary worth of such things - no one expects a gold statue, but it’s about the thought that goes into the usability and quality. A $1 nice-looking, usable gift is more valuable than a $10 crude, unusable, ugly gift, thrown at you for the sake of it.
  1. Following the previous point, the devil lies in the details. I used to be extremely annoyed and skeptical about this, but yes, the details are reflections of effort, thought, and dedication. Perfection drives everyone crazy, but attending to relevant details that play into the big picture of the overall experience is incredibly important. Put yourself in the shoes of the consumer to understand which details are important, and which ones are unnecessary hair-splitting ventures. Another example from my upbringing - (not sure why I’m using wedding examples; perhaps because I just came out of an event planning experience). Parents and wedding caterers spend enormous amounts of money on different kinds of exotic food. But the tables (and chairs) that are put out even in well-trimmed, pricey lawns get very little attention, when they are extremely important for a satisfying dining experience. Expensive silk may get caught in unsightly splinters, kids would not be able to reach their food or injure themselves on rusty screws, the serving plastic cups will be of inferior quality, resulting in leaks etc. It’s sometimes not even a matter of money to correct these little things, but the focus is never on them, and people settle. We assume that others can “adjust”, although the solutions are quite simple and cost-effective. That’s why, on a bigger scale, even inter-state highways have appalling sights such as overflowing trash, mail-boxes never close, gate hinges always give away, the seats on air-conditioned buses rattle, the packaging on expensive medications are either hard to open, or half-open etc. These little things do add up in creating a negative, frustrating experience. There is a simple Tamil expression that goes - Whatever you do, do it well. Even if you’re serving only one simple dish, cook it well and serve it well. Dedicate your time and attention to it. Sloppiness is even more aggravating, glaring, and impossible to tolerate if it’s capped on an expensive product/service.
  1. Nothing is totally impossible. There is always a solution, if we decide to take the extra mile. This is how innovation is born. From where I come from, change is unpleasant. People are more comfortable doing things the same old way than attempting them differently. Fine, tradition is a murky topic to explore. But, what I find unacceptable is that people choose to do things in a lackluster manner to simply avoid more work! If something requires a little more work, more effort, more thought, we are ready to fall back on what is nearest and most available and easy. Our cost-benefit analysis is often skewed - we underestimate the benefits, and overestimate the costs. As my father keeps ranting, the expression that we seem to hear the most is, “No, it cannot be done”, rather than, “Yes, we will try.”
Maybe all of this is just a reflection of different management styles? Perhaps. But a huge part of it is attributed to the individual’s drive and motivation to do their best. And I hope everyone, including me, tries to adhere to these values.


Karthik said...

Nice ! I enjoyed reading your consolidated thoughts on this :-).. I feel at the end of the day, it comes down to how much one cares about making it a success, and how inclusive one is willing to be in their approach.

Neeraja said...

Thanks Karthik :). Very true, it goes down to the individual's passion and open-mindedness.

Kannan said...

I agree with most of what's written (ok.. all of it).
I believe wrong perceptions of priorities and acceptable choices have a lot to do with several aspects of life's frustrations.
Sometimes when the answer is "ït cannot be done", the underlying thought is - this is not our priority.
The marriage example - chairs are not our priority - we are paid to make 45 dishes.
What else could account for the fact that every time we visit India we are amazed at the poor quality of / lack of bathroom facilities in tourist attractions, highways, etc. No money ? (That doesn't seem likely - the country is awash in money) No need for bathrooms? What are you guys thinking?
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that for many, perfection is not required to be pursued and life for them is just that - imperfect, uncomfortable and inconsiderate. We know what to do, but we just won't do it.
That's why we are amazed at Jobs and his innovations. And continue to wonder why a $3 milk can has a handle to carry comfortably but a $800 6.5 lb laptop that will break if dropped doesn't! And oh yes it will have a super slippery finish.
Or why we I can buy a $2500 TV with the swipe of a card, but cannot send $20 to girl scouts through our Bank of America account instantly (must send them a cheque)
Or why there will only be 4 wheelchairs in the Chennai airport - with 2 broken and the others untraceable)
It is all because we choose to be that way. I highly recommend Sheena Iyengar's book The Art of Choosing for you.

Neeraja said...

Kannan, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I actually started reading Sheena Iyengar's book last year but had to return it in the middle. It was quite interesting and I intend to pick it up again sometime.

I can understand one's (or people's) decision to choose imperfection if the aim to achieve complete perfection is a little intimidating and unsettling, and even perhaps unrealizable in some contexts. If someone collectively has doubts about their capability, it hurts too ("We can never come close to the west" attitude). But for the most part, I find we choose to be imperfect for more "trivial" reasons - laziness, lack of work ethic, callousness, apathy etc. This is what bothers me. People don't seem to care. The only priority is making money by following the easiest path.

If developers of services/products tried to put themselves in the consumer's shoes, their priorities wouldn't be so misplaced. I believe people hardly think beyond development to conceptualize actual "use". Their job is done once they have cooked, coded, built something. People who market, don't concern themselves with anything else but selling - by hook or crook. And customer service gets hardly any attention later on... even if it does, band-aid solutions are dished out. If the wheelchair in the airport is broken and there is an angry traveler, the solution is to apologize, listen to the irate scoldings, give a cool drink and wait for the one working wheelchair to become available. It hardly progresses beyond that...
Since consumers have little choice, we pick the acceptable product/service over the absolute worst and live on.

Meens said...

Thank you, Neeraja, so true... :)
The ones that most resonate with my strongest feelings about excellence are: "Exceptional performance has little to do with competition"... and
"the details are reflections of effort, thought, and dedication"

And its so refreshing and inspiring to look at a post like this, when I'm still hung up on my vacation