A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
December 21st, 2012 by William

The 80% Solution Syndrome

In Seth Godin’s November 16th blog post titled “This is the best I can do” vs. “It’s not good enough,” he brings to light a problem that I’ve personally witnessed in my career.

Godin explains, “Both are symptoms of a huge problem that doesn’t even have a name. Entire industries lull themselves into believing that what they make and how they make it is good enough–until someone comes along and turns the market on its head by proving them wrong.

“At the same time, countless projects go un-launched, improvements hidden, thoughts unstated–because the person behind the idea is hiding behind the false understanding that their work isn’t good enough yet.

“Which problem do you have?”

Probably both as both are distinct problems that plague modern business. Let’s take a deeper look why.

I call the first problem “The 80% Solution Syndrome” or, less elegantly, “The Good Enough Syndrome.”

In my line of work, I’ve heard this solution (usually voiced as a goal) offered many times by management when faced with a tough product specification to meet or when designing a new product. The real goal should be to offer a design solution that meets (or exceeds) the customer’s requirements while beating the competition’s product however, many a management team will start the design process only expecting to get an 80% solution to the customer’s needs. Why is that?

Admittedly, many times the 100% solution is much more than the customer really needs and more importantly, if met, would be much more expensive to design. That’s because there’s much data proving that to get that last 20% of the product performance it will double the cost to design the product. The question then is this: in this highly competitive business environment can a company afford not to try to make their products reach 95% or even 100% of the desired capabilities. This is what Seth Godin talks about in his book Small Is the New Big, when he stated that instead of following the herd and doing what every other company is doing−companies should be focusing on doing one thing “remarkably.” Steve Jobs never told his design staff he’d accept the 80% solution–he demanded 100%.

Of course, whether that added 20% benefit is worth the cost depends on the particular case–not every product is a “bet-the-company” proposition. Not every product requires that every rock be turned over in its development. Fortunately the consumer has grown to accept that products won’t meet all their expectations−and good enough will do to meet the needs of the masses. But does that automatically mean that companies should start a design process targeting only the 80% solution. This is basically the same point I made in the previous post on Quality needing to be Job #1, instead of cost.

Lately it seems everything I buy fails shortly after I bring it home−coffee maker, laptop, can opener−I’m sure you also have a list. This is proof that in product development the focus is solely of cost, not Quality, and certainly not on trying to produce a product that will meet 100% of the customer’s expectations. Remember it’s not just performance that the customer expects–its quality, i.e., that the product won’t fail shortly after they take it home. I’m always amused by companies that pride themselves on their return policy and on how easy they make it to return unwanted or defective product–in my mind there’s something wrong with that thinking.

The second of Godin’s points deserves attention also because it may give insight into why the 80% solution reins supreme. The 80% mentality is a result of the typical environment found in many workplaces−that of negative reinforcement. An organization that must settle for the 80% solution is an organization where trust and respect are nil and employees are, as a result of the way they’re treated, afraid to take risks and make suggestions–afraid to give 100%. Why? Because they’re constantly being told they aren’t “good enough.”

In my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw, I lampoon in great detail the inhuman practice of the yearly performance review. This dehumanizing (for the both the giver and receiver) process is carried out religiously in most organizations under the guise of “improving employee performance.” The cold hard fact is that this process has proven to be the biggest demotivating action that management can take. This is because most organizations focus more on the negative than the positive and, as such, squelch any willingness for employees to want to stick their necks out of their comfort zones, i.e., to do the minimum to survive.

This means that improvements to product quality and design capabilities that most employees have knocking around in their heads are never surfaced for fear of being ridiculed or, worse yet, not given the appropriate praise.

In most cases the 80% solution mentality is spawned by this second problem that Godin talks about; “At the same time, countless projects go un-launched, improvements hidden, thoughts unstated–because the person behind the idea is hiding behind the false understanding that their work isn’t good enough yet.”

This willingness to settle for an 80% solution has been spawned by management itself–they only have themselves to blame. It’s payback for command and control leadership and their practice of negative reinforcement. Thus because their employees won’t give 100%, management can only expect an 80% solution to anything they do and they forfeit ever being able to do anything “remarkable.”


One Response to “The 80% Solution Syndrome”
  1. Anonymous says

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