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:
- A committee is formed.
- The committee looks at a lot of work other people have done (benchmarking).
- Many lists of features and functions are made.
- Committee members attempt to draw examples.
- Someone comes to their senses and brings in an actual designer.
- The designer creates sample designs.
- The committee critiques the designs.
- The committee debates at length and demands changes in pursuit of conflicting visions of excellence.
- If not totally fatigued, GOTO line 6.
- Now that the design process has been halted by fatigue, the implementors are brought in.
- It is discovered that the arbitrary design doesn't respect the realities of implementation.
- Much time and energy disappears into the implementation work.
- The committee continues to invent new ways to make the product better and interrupts the implementation with the new really-great ideas.
- If not totally fatigued, GOTO line 12.
- Key features and functions are cut because the project has taken far too long and is way over budget -- if there was a budget.
- The new product is pushed into production.
- The company begins to discover whether the whole idea was brilliant, disastrous or somewhere in between.
- 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:
- Look at what other people have done (benchmarking).
- Make some notes.
- Grab cheap, free, off-the-shelf tools.
- Put together a rough working prototype.
- Gather real-world results.
- Modify the product.
- 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.