First AMAZING, Then ACTIONABLE…Re-Defining Quality (PART 3 of 4)

Ship in a Bottle

Perfect is the Enemy of Amazing.  I truly believe that our quest for perfection can not only diminish our innovative capability, but also create a culture of fearfulness rather than fearlessness. Innovators can become more concerned with minimizing mistakes than in maximizing potential, and this fear will lead to safer and smaller innovations.  To be clear, by no means am I saying that quality executions are not important or that we should loosen our standards on the products we launch to consumers. It is quite the opposite, in fact.  Particularly as the speed of innovation accelerates, organizations become more lean, and individuals become more distracted multi-taskers, it is more critical than ever to have robust and effective quality assurance systems in place.  The question is not a matter of if we should emphasize minimizing mistakes, eliminating defects, and flawless executions- it is a matter of when.

When this emphasis of minimizing risk, “punishing” mistakes, and eliminating uncertainty is brought from the execution phase into the definition and invention phases of the innovation process, then more problems will be created than solved.  A focus on minimizing risks will yield safer and smaller ideas.  Punishing and tracking mistakes will lead to less experimentation, boldness, and agility.  Eliminating uncertainty will lead to less disruptions, breakthroughs, and true inventions and more marginal product improvements.  And to make matters worse, all of this emphasis, while on paper showing improvements in measurable “quality”, will ultimately diminish our ability to deliver true quality in the end.  An over-emphasis on Perfection in the early stages of innovation will lead to a smaller initiatives, and thus require more programs to deliver against financial objectives.  As more projects are started, the organization will be spread thinner and initiatives will become smaller yet.  And so this “cycle of doom” will begin that will not only decrease the efficiency and yield of our innovations but also, because of the over-extension of resources, will actually increase the probability of the quality incidents that we were attempting to avoid!

Again, this is not to say that “Quality” should only be a focus on the late stages of the innovation process.  Rather, this is to say that while in the execution phase, quality assurance measures should be focused on Perfection (minimizing defects, mistakes, costs), in the early phases these measures should focus on Amazing (superior products, size of prize, invention and experimentation).  This broadening of the definition of “Quality” will still allow for the flawlessness of execution that we need, while insuring that what we execute is excellent and superior.  Said differently, it is far easier to take something amazing and make it actionable then to take something actionable and make it amazing.

 1)    What You Should Do is More Important than What You Could Do.  In our “need for speed”. We are often in a hurry to jump right into execution and to move quickly through the fuzzy front end of definition and invention.  We say things like “do the last experiment first” and “innovate with the end in mind” so as to get to a faster answer… but these will likely not yield a better answer.  If our goal is truly to drive bigger, better, and fewer innovations then we need to invest the time, money, and people up front into defining the right problem before launching ourselves into solving it.  Our quality measures should focus on insuring we have answers to the “what” questions before we launch into the “how” questions… What is the Big Idea?  What is the Size of Prize?  What will our Competitive Advantage be?  What Points of Superiority must we have?  What Points of Inferiority are Acceptable?  What is Our Intellectual Property?  What is the Desired Consumer Experience?  If we hold ourselves to high standards in the early stages, we will insure that we will deliver the bigger, better, and fewer innovations we seek in the later stages.

 “It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best” – W Edwards Deming.

 2)    Measure Twice, and Cut Once.   When it comes to focusing quality on the early phases of innovation, this simple phrase is a very concise way to summarize a best practice.  In our organizations, how much energy is spent on the accuracy of making the right cut versus the precision of making a “perfect” cut?  In the pressure of trying to hit a launch date or to accelerate innovation, it can be a natural tendency to rush through the early phases so as to allow sufficient time for execution.  Essentially, we know that making a thorough, precise “cut” takes time, so we hurry up to start cutting (often knowing that we will need to cut more than once).  At the end of the day, there often is “never enough time to measure once, but always enough time to cut twice”.  Our primary focus should be on a thorough, accurate “measurement” before we ever start to worry about making a final, precise “cut”.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all” – Peter Drucker

3) Simplifying Too Early Makes Things More Complex.  Often in an effort to accelerate innovation and to insure greater quality in execution, we can eliminate “degrees of freedom” for our innovation teams.  Essentially, we might limit the ingredients in a formulation, complexity in a new process, or uncertainty in experimentation so as to better insure success.  While on the surface this may seem like a sound approach, for an innovation team this push for simplicity can actually make the process more complex.  I like to use the analogy of a “ship in a bottle”… if we ask a team to build an amazing “Ship” but constrain them to putting it into a bottle, we will definitely limit the materials, size, and variables that the team can utilize for innovation.  However, in adding these constraints, we will greatly increase the time and complexity to logistically complete the task.  Whereas had we asked the team to deliver a ship that was the size of the bottle, but not constrained them with the bottle itself, we would have ended up with a faster and better solution.  Said differently, we should focus on giving our teams simple success criteria, but not simplifying constraints… allowing the team the degrees of freedom they need to complete the task.

One of my favorite examples is that of the design of an EKG machine that could be cost-effective and portable for use in rural India. In a desire for speed and simplicity, the team was first given minimal degrees of freedom and asked to take an existing developed market device and to “water it down” so as to meet the design and cost needs of rural India.  Working under these constraints of course did not work and the team failed to deliver anything even close to the targets needed for this low-income market. This same team was then given the freedom to design it from scratch and to meet the same performance and cost success criteria, but now to do so however they best saw fit. The team very quickly delivered an inventive solution that was not only a success in India but that was ultimately reapplied in developed markets.   Again, being prescriptive on the “what” but allowing freedom on the “how” ultimately yielded a better and faster solution.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.  -Albert Einstein

Again, none of this is to say that quality measures should be deemphasized, but rather that the definition should be broadened so as to drive “Amazing” in the early stages and “Perfection” in the latter.  Encouraging and measuring the eliminations of mistakes, minimization of risks, and constraints in execution in the latter stages should complement and not replace the emphasis on experimentation, boldness, and freedom in the early stages.  The broadening of this definition will not only yield more quality in the definition and invention phases, but ultimately in the execution phases as well- as the results will be bigger, better, and fewer initiatives.  Tomorrow, I will conclude the topic by discussing “We are What We Measure”, highlighting how we can and should use our initiative, team, and individual “quality” measures to drive the business results and organizational culture that we desire.


Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on


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