When an A Minus is an F

Good Enough is Not Good
by Ken Goldstein
Third in a Series of Ten

Doug Carlston was the inspirational and visionary CEO and co-Founder of Broderbund Software when I had the privilege of joining that one-of-kind company.  Throughout my earliest meetings with Doug and repeated my first day on the job, he told me, “The world is filled with 90 percenters; in product development 90% is just enough to lose everything you have.”

We all grew up with a school grading system where 90% was an A-, certainly not an A+, but nothing you were usually afraid to show your parents or tell your friends. On the strict GPA scale, 90% got you the same 4.0 added to your cumulative tally (divided by 1) as 100%, so even though you might lose the bragging rights of a full A or a rare A+, in terms of your GPA it was mission accomplished, you had squeaked by with a top mark.

In business, squeaking by won’t cut it. We live in a fully global landscape with minimal constraints on distribution, vast market fragmentation, unending innovation, and almost unquantifiable competition for the loyalty of customers.  In almost every category of products and services, customers have immeasurable choices, more choices every year, month, week, and hour. Even in a society like ours that celebrates great deals and value prices, trying to keep a customer’s loyalty with products that reflect “good enough for what you paid” is a path to pure disaster. You may get away with it for a while, but you won’t build a great company like Apple.

Think of it this way, suppose you paid even for the cheapest seats to the symphony, and the symphony got 90% of the notes right. OK, rough extreme, you’d be gone by the first break, probably try to sneak out before. Suppose your hometown baseball team played 90% error free, that’s an A-, right? Gone. Suppose 90% of the features worked on your car, would you buy another of the same brand? Or your desktop software could be counted on to work 90% of the time (some of us learned to live with that for many years, until competition showed it was an unacceptable standard). You get the idea, 90% excellence for a consumer product or service as a sustainable proposition that will delight and “enchant” customers and bring them back to you time and again is an absurdity.

So where do 90% products comes from, and how do they still get released to market with a prayer for success? Do we think our marketing colleagues can just smooth everything over with a good story and reassure customers who are angry 10% of the time? If you think that, I invite you to request a shift on the phones in your company’s customer service department, I dare you to listen for an hour and try not to rethink everything you are doing. Listen to yourself the next time you call customer service to “offer feedback,” your tone may reflect much less than 90% satisfaction.  When you call, remember, they need you way more than you need them.  In your business, same thing, you need them way more than they need you. 

The point is that 90% products come from 90% employees, probably not all of them, and very unlikely intentional — very few of us set out happily on a path to be “good enough” but as deadlines approach, we test the corporate culture to see what is valued most. What Doug taught us at Broderbund over and over is that in business, getting to 90% is just not that hard, so many people can do it, it’s just not worth celebrating. You could often look at a Broderbund product development schedule and see we’d try to get to 90%, either Alpha or Beta, in a few months, leaving a year or even two to release the product. What’s that I say, 90% of the schedule for the final 10% of the product? That’s because in Doug’s mind, the final 10% of the product was the product, the 90% working model was the fun and easy part, the “inspiration phase” as another great inventor coined the phrase.

If you allow 90% employees to inhabit your company culture and let them think they are succeeding with 90% success again and again, you continue to allow your world to be filled with 90 percenters. It’s wrong, you don’t want them, and you can’t allow it. Customers work hard for the money that pays for their goods and services, just like you do, they deserve 100% all the time, and now they expect it. A 90 percenter is an evangelist for mediocrity. Besides, it’s no fun to squeak by, thinking that being a 90 percenter will either secure you a sense of accomplishment or a basket of rewards. See through the 90% haze with 100% people, and you have a shot at delivering robust, breakthrough, world-changing products and services that reflect the hard work and true values you believe are worthy of your brand.

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5 thoughts on “When an A Minus is an F

  1. Hi Ken- just found this blog. Really enjoying it- thanks!

    One question I had about this is that there’s so much emphasis today- particularly in web startups- about just getting something to 90% and “getting it out there” instead of really waiting to get it perfect. Many would argue that by the time you wait for the last 10%, you’ll miss your opportunity. I tend to see the validity of both approaches. How do you think about this?

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    • In my mind there is nothing wrong in the start-up mode of getting live at 90%, as long as you acknowledge honestly that you are not at 100% and are fully committed to getting there. The very definitition of beta would suggest that, it means you are telling your customers you know you still have work to do, you are taking ownership for the unfinished. Even in shrink wrap software we used to release patches and updates, we knew the work was never done. That spirit of continual improvement is what gives a company a shot at getting from good to great. In the start-up world, speed matters big time, so you have to balance time to market with stages of excellence and achieve both!

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