The myth of '100' – Why many things should be finished, but most will never be complete

The Myth of 100

On a scale of 1 to 100, what do you think of the title of this post? If you say 100, you're lying. In fact, pretty much any number you give is a fabrication, because its purely a relative measurement and I haven't given any comparative benchmark. But that's not my point. I'm going to focus on 100, because that's a number we use every day to indicate completion. It's a very dangerous number.

Almost any creation, whether its artistic, architectural, engineered, formulated, programmed or organized, contains the potential for improvement. They can always be made better, more efficient, more effective or more complete. This is the devil that confronts passionate, dedicated people on a daily basis. They search for 100, but can never reach it. Every time we complete an improvement, we create an entirely new scale stretching from the new benchmark to a theoretical ideal state. (Plato gets the last laugh after all!) It's like that old question: if I stand ten feet away from a wall and each minute I halve the remaining distance, when will I reach the wall? Never.

To all the perfectionists out there, you should know that this pursuit can lead you well past the breakeven point and all the way to complete failure. For a cautionary tale of just how dangerous this myth can be, we can look at a great piece Wired Magazine did called, Learn to Let Go: How Success Killed Duke Nukem.

How do we avoid being sucked into this frustrating and impossible pursuit of perfection? It helps to understand the Law of Diminishing Returns. The law states that beyond a certain point, every additional unit of input yields a decreasing amount of marginal output (you get less back for each additional piece of work you put in). Eventually, the benefit you get from additional units of input drops below the cost of those individual units, and you start losing money with each additional investment. As Duke Nukem demonstrates, there are other related factors that can actually cause the overall project value to fall, so additional units of input yield negative marginal utility.

I've illustrated the law in the diagram below. The important thing to look at is what happens to the right of the dotted line. There is still positive marginal utility. The project is still getting better…. moving towards 100. But the people funding it and working on it are faring worse and worse, losing value with each additional step. The trick is to keep an eye on the relationship between incremental cost and incremental benefit, and to stop investing when the two converge.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

The diagram makes it look a bit more simple than it really is. You have to consider various factors including time, money, personal satisfaction, goodwill and relationships, and opportunity cost in your calculations (and some of that is very subjective). Still, if you take your best shot at calculating these curves, you're much more likely to get the optimal result and avoid getting sucked into the quest for the impossible.

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4 Responses to The myth of '100' – Why many things should be finished, but most will never be complete

  1. John Harden says:

    Well done, Jeff. This is an important message in this crazy world. There is always the personal price and risk of crossing over the fine line from "lazy" to "crazy," but you did a great job of pointing out the impact on others – clients, family, etc. Too much is…well…too much, and can bring an organization down if unchecked.

  2. Thanks John! It's definitely true and I've been guilty of over-investing in the name of perfection more than enough times to be able to write about it. I actually realized after I posted that my diagram wasn't quite right, so I've replaced it with the revised one above, but only after weighing the additional 5 minutes of work against the benefit of making a clearer visual point. ;-)

  3. John Harden says:

    Hey Jeff!

    Just a thought…should the "Optimal" point be at the top of the "Incremental Utility" curve, with the "Minimal" resting where the Incremental Utility and Incremental Cost lines cross (what you currently have marked as Optimal)? The difference between is where all of us over-servicers live – hopefully to the left of the "Minimal."

    I think I want to live at the top of the curve. Nice graph!

    :-)

  4. Marc Schoenen says:

    The pursuit of perfection is indeed perilous, and your takeaways are clear. In corporate America, there are way too many times that offerings get overdesigned, overly reengineered, with latency and bugs that make the project doomed for failure before it is even launched.

    I wonder if this is some of the problem that RIM seems to be facing right now.

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