Note: I'm not quite sure how to categorise this post, nor what to call it. It touches on something very important and central to my work - how to recognize and groom those bits of our work that have potential. When to stick with it, when to shift and even when to give up.
Working with my clients, I am constantly reminded that shipping excellence is really really hard. The journey from idea to shipping something truly special is long and winding.
If you’re lucky enough to stumble into that something special early, for example with an already almost excellent idea or prototype, you will be drawn to start guarding it. To start protecting it. You may slip into the mindset of scarcity and defend it so long that your work loses power. You go through every following stage protecting, fearing you could lose that spark in your work any time now.
But great work is never born in protection. It is forged in fires of courage and candour. Being courageous at the beginning and then falling back makes our ideas, our products, our businesses weak. They will never stand the trials of the real world. We need to continue to take risks and test our ideas against the real world as much as possible. The sooner we find their weaknesses – the better. It can hurt, it feels vulnerable, but it’s much cheaper than a slow death of an idea.
Then there’s achieved excellence.
In his book, Creativity, Inc., Pixar president Ed Catmull, writes that their famously excellent movies are completely and utterly bad in the beginning. As Catmull explains, the real creative process is taking that initial spark that started the project and realising it through thousands of decisions and points of improvement over a long period of time.
Just imagine. Working long hours on something rather bad and uninteresting, for weeks, maybe months. Every day making it a little bit, even just 1%, better. Then one day you hit a milestone. It’s no longer bad, it’s just ‘OK’ now. But after that months of work will still pass, people will continue collaborating, money will be spent. You'll eventually hit the ‘good’ milestone.
Exhausted, you look at the time and money it consumed to get this far. You didn’t take a holiday for months. The thing is 80% finished. It’s good. Do you stop? Do you ship now?
How you consistently answer that question is the most important factor in your work being either good, great or something that never even happens. Here’s why:
Good work is shipped early. Great work is shipped at just the right time.
When reaching the 'great' stage, some elements of our great work are excellent, some good, some even bad. But work longer, even by a little and you’ll never ship. The market will change. Money will run out. You’ll start doubting yourself. I have experienced all of the above. Many times.
Here's how I got to this point. In the beginning, my work was either just good or it never shipped. I could recognise excellence, but the gap between recognising and creating it is vast. When we don’t move fast enough towards greatness, we often give up early. Companies kill initiatives impatiently, they don’t let experiments run their course, or they run out of funds. They go back to what they know.
Good work, on the other hand, gets rewarded. It is reliable. You can run forecasting models on good work. It is the foundation, it is what makes our world work. Good work makes things work, it makes us money, even if it doesn't make things exciting.
But then one day we stumble onto excellence. It's most likely luck, as we can’t plan on something we’ve never done before. What follows next is frustration and confusion. We can’t repeat it. In fact, the sooner we get lucky, the harder it is to repeat it. Masters at their craft make their work seem effortless - they stumble very little, they don’t seem to take wrong turns. Even their experiments look like just more mastery.
Eventually, if we persist, we start learning this balance of doing excellent work. We learn that it takes a lot more work and a lot more risk than it seemed at first. It takes courage, often doing things against what our survival instincts tell us to do. It takes showing unfinished things to people, receiving their honest opinions, dealing with them. It takes learning to be at peace with being stuck, often for months without apparent results.
Why is this important? Because for most of the time, it's just more comfortable to err on the side of good work. It’s better to do good work than risk excellence, we often think. And the world rewards us with expecting more good work from us.
The thing with good work is - it pays and people need it, but no-one loves it. Not even the creator.
So why not stop at good work?
Because excellent work allows for something that good work will never do. It is about a deeper connection between the maker and the recipient. The magical moments that say to the recipient - "this is what that work meant for me".
Now, you might think this is a very noble ambition. What does it have to do with business though? Building passion and connection deep into your work is your escape from the survival mode almost every business is stuck in. Let’s look at two major why’s.
First, when you develop an authentic emotional bond with your customers, you do something none of your competitors do. Suddenly, people choose you not because you’re a better option of many, but because you’re you. They will trust you more and will be happy to pay you more because of that emotional connection. Just like when people want to get an iPhone because it’s an iPhone. That not only puts you ahead of the competition, but also gives you freedom to experiment and innovate. You won’t just have customers, you’ll have fans.
Second, it makes your team, and your customers proud. Studies repeatedly show that people are happier and work better when they are motivated by something more than good salary, or fear of losing their job. They want to be a part of something bigger. If you manage to bring real connection into the experience, it’s exactly that ‘something bigger’ we’re talking about.
Companies that strive for connection and excellence have the most fans. Look at the list of your favourites. There are companies you put up with, ones that don’t have a better alternative. They never make that list. That list is full of the companies do something daring. Something that spoke to you no other alternative did. Is being ordinary at the source of that appreciation? Or is it that they’re taking risks and striving for excellence and connection?