Zeno was a Greek philosopher who lived in approximately 450 BC. One of his claims to lasting fame is that he created a number of logical paradoxes including one of the more famous, known as Achilles and the tortoise.
Achilles challenges a tortoise to a foot race with tortoise receiving a head start of, say, 100 meters. At a signal, each of them starts moving – Achilles is running and the tortoise is moseying along at his own pace. Who do you think will win?
Here’s the way Zeno presented his paradox.
Achilles runs the first hundred meters, by which time the tortoise has moved, say, 10 m [this may be a relatively speedy tortoise but it’s okay for this purpose]. So now Achilles runs another 10 m, by which time the tortoise has advanced another meter. Now Achilles covers the meter. Darn it! The tortoise just moved another 10 cm. I guess you can see where this is going. As far as the Greeks were concerned, Achilles never quite catches the tortoise.
Which brings me to the point of this article.
There’s always that little bit more that you could do to make it just a little bit better, and even then there’s another little bit you could do to make it better still. But if you keep doing this, you’ll never catch the tortoise. So how do you know when to stop?
And it’s not about finding a special formula that always gives you the answer, is it? Getting it ” perfect” for the wedding is a bit different from knowing when tonight’s dinner is ready to serve.
What about planning a workshop, or completing a proposal or a project plan? How do you know when to stop obsessing about the details and the imperfections, and just go for it?
Let’s explore a couple of analogies here, to see if we can learn something that will help us recognize know when to stop the planning and just get on with it.
First, the automobile industry. Think about the changes that have taken place over the past 20 years or so in areas like passenger safety, fuel economy, reliability and communications. From each model year two model year how dramatic as these changes been? Right – they generally being incremental, not radical. And that’s how it works for anything that you keep on doing. Nobody would expect you to build a “perfect car” first time. It’s much more about building something that works, then discovering what can be improved. It’s not about continually putting off the “launch date” because it’s not quite perfect yet. It’s about creating the opportunity to build experience and learn.
Second, the sailing ship era. Yes, you need your cargo, you need your crew, you need your supplies, and you also need to know the time of high tide so you have more than enough water under your keel to be able to get out of the harbour without running aground. Hanging around to get it perfect could mean that you miss the tide and have to wait for the next one. And then, if the wind is in the wrong direction, you’re still screwed.
In other words, waiting for everything to be perfect often means that actually nothing gets completed and out into the world. It has been said that Winston Churchill said (i.e. nobody is really sure that he said it, but it’s much sexier if he can be linked to it) that “Perfection is the enemy of progress.”
So which makes more sense for your own enterprise: “Do it, ship it, fix it (if necessary)”, or “Get it perfect the first time (even if that’s the only time)”?