Perfect is the enemy of done – or is it?

A couple of weeks ago, NASA celebrated the one year anniversary of Curiosity Rover landing on Mars.

As someone who has been taking pictures since the ’60s, I still find it amazing that we can tell a satellite orbiting Mars to take a picture of a Jeep-size spacecraft parachuting to its landing 62 million miles away and have the photo on my laptop 20 minutes later.

The photos and video of the landing and all that led up to that event reminds me of the oft-quoted remark “Perfect is the enemy of done.”

Does it need to be “perfect”?

While shipping something and iterating its benefits, features and quality are perfectly acceptable strategies for many products and services, I think we shortchange ourselves if we don’t keep in mind that there’s a time and a place for “better than done”.

I was trained by engineering professors during my college days, so “perfect” means something well beyond “done” to me, often well beyond four decimal places.

Perfection is extremely difficult to achieve and even harder to prove , so let’s settle on a “Much better than where it is now” definition so we can keep the engineers happy.

Using that definition, perfect makes no sense for most work under most circumstances. For example, software programs are never “perfect” and while you can always sand a surface with a finer grit of sandpaper, does it matter if you take an 800-grit-smooth surface to where 10000 grit will smooth it?

Perhaps a better question is this: Is the cost and time investment worth going past “good enough/done” to reach for those “perfect” four, nine or 27 decimal places?

Going beyond a seemingly ridiculous number of decimal places is one reason why Curiosity made it to Mars and still rumbles across the Red Planet today – yet it’s unlikely that Curiosity is perfect.

BUT… it is extremely well-designed and resilient.

Design and Resilience

My point is this: while perfect is certainly the enemy of done for much of the work that you and I deliver, that doesn’t eliminate the need to put serious thought into the design and resilience of our best products and services – if not all of them.

It’s not unusual for us to design something based on immediate and short-term needs, never taking the time to consider what happens if it encounters situations and customers our short-term design never considered.

The information we don’t have is often as important as what we know and assume at design time.

When you send a product like Curiosity to Mars, you don’t get an opportunity to replace a part you didn’t think through as well as you should have. You can’t make a service call or throw a tarp over it while you rip it apart to figure out how to resolve today’s problem.

Instead, your design time process has to include what *could* happen and how your product would react and extract itself from an unexpected situation….long before you load it onto a rocket, pallet, download page or Fedex box.

What if your product…

  • Finds itself being used by a customer 10 times bigger than your design-time’s “Ideal Customer”? Or 10 times smaller?
  • Is being used in an unfriendly environment? A high-security or low-security situation?
  • Lasts 10 years longer than you expected? Remember – the work or result it provides still reflects on your business.
  • Cost 250% more to replace once it’s installed – and that installation takes 253 days  (the time it took for Curiosity to reach Mars).

When Curiosity lifts off, it was too late to turn a screw, change a part’s materials, or sand and polish it to an even-higher tolerance fit.

Think about your best stuff – no matter what you do. What would happen to it under the conditions described above? Would it be worth more if it handled those things without breaking a sweat?

How would you react when that extra bit of design effort pays off? What revenue will result? What will that first few seconds of success feel like?

PS: The sum of *all* NASA spending over the last 50 years is $800 billion. Lots of money. Yet that 50 years of exploration and discovery were cheaper than the government bailout of Wall Street, which cost $850 billion. A stunning comparison of ROI, even before thinking about the spin-off technologies from NASA’s work that have trickled down to business and industry, much less the things that impact our daily lives.

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