Leaders should use the 80 percent solution—where perfection isn't the goal—to improve creativity and collaboration among their teams.
A few Saturdays ago, I was working on a fairly simple house project replacing the pipe under my bathroom sink. Handy I am not, but this was a project I should've been able to complete because it didn't require sophisticated tools, the steps were not overly complex, and I had access to help, most notably a useful YouTube video.
Despite my positive intentions and willingness to learn, I quickly started to question every detail of every step. Was this the right part? Did I use too much glue? Will this prevent leaks? With each decision, my agony grew. I convinced myself that success only would come through replicating exactly what I saw in the YouTube video. Despite my novice ability, I was pursuing expert-level perfection—and attempting perfection cost me my entire weekend afternoon.
How did I get to that spot? Why did I slip so quickly into the trap of seeking perfection? And what does my experience have to do with how work gets done in our organizations?
Even though my sink project was a solo effort, the challenges I faced are repeated daily in companies. Many teams face the explicit or implicit task of determining the 100 percent correct solution for every step of every project. However, relatively few situations demand perfection, and often a good enough solution really is good enough. For highly effective teams, the answer is to know when, and how, to target the 80 percent solution rather than getting bogged down by perfection.
What is the 80 percent solution?
Simply put, the 80 percent solution is an understanding that you and your team aren't seeking perfection. The intent instead is to maintain a project's momentum by managing expectations and keeping a sharp focus on the most critical work.
One can trace this concept back to several well-regarded management practices. For example, minimum viable product is an innovation-oriented exercise during which teams discard perfections and focus on quickly creating a solution to implement, gather feedback, and iterate future designs. In addition, 80 percent solution concepts align well with Lean and Six Sigma methodologies, where the goal is to minimize defects within a process. However, completely eliminating defects or errors (perfection) requires exponentially more effort and resources the closer you get to zero, thus making this outcome unrealistic and ultimately inefficient.
Whether you're developing innovative solutions or identifying how to improve existing processes, the 80 percent solution can provide tremendous value for you and your team. So why aren't more leaders focused on this important concept?
For most leaders, it's easy to align a team on the idea of an 80 percent solution—but much harder to honor the intent. Many subtle factors can undermine a team's commitment to this concept. In my experience, four challenges are especially common among teams.
Leader commitment. If you as the leader are not fully committed, then no one on your team can benefit from this concept. I've watched teams and functions strive for a creative, collaborative environment and, through leader action, degrade into a painful process of funneling all decisions up.
What makes leader commitment so hard? Two challenges tend to be most common. First, the leader operates out of a fear of failure. To limit this fear is to limit risk, and creativity and collaboration are often collateral damage. Second, the leader may not know how to coach team members through errors. Everyone has experiences of making honest mistakes in innocuous situations that lead to getting in trouble. With an 80 percent mindset, a leader's healthier reaction is to leverage imperfections as learning opportunities.
Getting started. I'm often on teams that create documents intended for use by wide audiences. There is frequently a strong intent to create the final version of the document in the initial drafting process. Understandably, the team wants to present a high-quality product and be viewed as capable, but this approach tends to encourage overproduction and takes tremendous time and energy.
Complicating matters, teams in this situation may struggle to incorporate feedback, because they've already established the document's direction via initial drafts. In essence, when just getting started, trying to create the final product makes it difficult to meet customer expectations.
Leveraging expertise. Expertise is a tremendous asset in almost every situation. However, unchecked expertise tends to expect perfection, regardless of the situation. To challenge such rigid thinking, I often ask my team whether we need the Ferrari solution or the Chevy solution. Not every situation requires perfection, and your team may need time and resources to devote to other areas of the project. Thus, leaders should consider whether perfection is critical.
Finishing a project. It's hard for teams to identify when a project is done. I've spent hours upon hours in meetings watching team members go back and forth about a handful of words, icons, and text sizes. Design is important, but it is easy to get lost in the artistry of project work that ultimately may not add value to the end user. That's the most significant challenge because of the finality in being done. Without good communication, it can be tricky for a team to identify when good enough is good enough.
Why the approach is so powerful
Despite such challenges, adopting an 80 percent solution mentality is incredibly useful. For example, as my bathroom project example illustrates, creating a 100 percent solution on your own is both difficult and frustrating. I've seen similar situations play out in the workplace.
For instance, I used to work with many engineers, and it wasn't uncommon for a colleague to identify a problem, invest time in developing a solution, and have the solution rejected for lack of completeness. It's hard to blame the engineer for wanting to help, but it's also easy to empathize with the team for sharing concerns. Unfortunately, this sequence of events always led to frustration and diminished teamwork. Perfection, on your own, is hard.
Conversely, one of the best leaders I worked for had a decidedly different approach to similar situations. When this leader had an idea, he would say, "I have an idea, but it needs help. I'd love your perspectives to come up with a better solution." As a team, we relished those discussions. The simple act of framing an idea as less than 100 percent provided us with ample legroom to think creatively and co-create the best idea.
By adopting 80 percent solutions, your team can quickly test ideas, gather feedback, and iterate toward more effective results. Additionally, embracing this approach frees your team from the burden required to develop the 100 percent solution.
Eighty percent doesn't mean low-quality work
Understandably, those who challenge this strategy often will cite the likelihood that it justifies sloppy work. This is an especially true line of thinking for executives who aren't involved in the details but often are responsible for sharing the end product with key stakeholders.
To address these legitimate concerns, you must differentiate making a mistake during the project from meeting requirements at the end of the project. During a project, providing an 80 percent solution, by definition, will involve a certain level of error. That's OK and, with the right attitude, can lead your team to much stronger outcomes. However, at the end of the project, your team must meet the end user's needs. If your team is unable to deliver critical requirements, then there is a lack of application around the project's intent or purpose.
I once heard a leader discuss how she liked to launch new programs into her organization by encouraging the team to run a series of pilot groups as a way to jump-start the initiative. Each iteration involved another round of pilot participants, which enabled the team to adjust and improve. Before long, the program was in full force and extremely successful. The continued designation of pilot program was the perfect mindset for the team to leverage an 80 percent mentality.
Likewise, I've seen several well-executed, low-quality projects. These projects often involve an oversensitivity to the timeline, a rigid approach to collaboration, and—most importantly—an unwillingness to compromise on perfection. Not only are such projects less fun to work on but they often miss valuable opportunities to exceed the customer's or end user's expectations. Contradictory to the project leader's approach, in these situations the expectation of perfection is the biggest roadblock in pursing the strongest outcome.
When not to use the 80 percent solution
Despite its many benefits, there are instances where you and your team should not apply the 80 percent solution. The most notable being when a perfect outcome is the legitimate expectation. Situations involving known variables, familiar circumstances, and little risk should not tolerate an 80 percent solution.
Most companies stake their business on being able to deliver a repeatable, perfect outcome. For example, customers would find it confusing if a restaurant continually tweaked its most popular recipes. End users will view an 80 percent solution in such instances as disappointing.
While an 80 percent solution approach is great at promoting creative thinking and provides teams with a lot of flexibility in their strategy, it could create chaos for an operations team that has prescriptive procedures. Also, highly regulated environments must be perfect to maintain compliance. In such situations, you must make the case for identifying the 100 percent solution and take extra care that your team thoroughly tests new ideas.
Events professionals manage this balance daily. They must brainstorm creative and engaging experiences for customers while not losing focus on providing them with a perfect or near-perfect experience. Their work directly affects customer experience, and a subpar event could mean less business. In one instance, the leader identified a need, then shifted the group's focus from experimenting with 80 percent solutions to refining and executing on 100 percent solutions. The switch was conscious and purposeful and as a result, the events team had clear expectations and rallied to meet the goal.
Although this strategy's outcomes may feel magical, leaders' required actions are far from supernatural. With a slight shift in your approach or language, the 80 percent solution can benefit many situations. Consider these suggestions to begin implementing this strategy today.
Check the expectations you have for yourself. Are they too high? Too low? As the leader, your approach has an outsized impact on your team's culture. Healthy expectations cascade to create a healthy culture. This is especially true for executives and senior leaders.
Think about your expectations of others. Specifically, what tends to frustrate you in the teams you work with? Are your expectations realistic? You should expect high-quality work, but be mindful of the difference between high quality and perfect.
Determine how to identify when good enough is good enough. This often means prioritization, especially around the project's critical requirements. It can also mean helping team members hold each other accountable for unnecessarily pursuing 100 percent solutions. You must have strong leadership and good communication to help your team accept an 80 percent solution and move on.
Stay focused on the goal, purpose, or work. This perspective helps your employees keep a sight line to the impact of their work, rather than getting bogged down in unnecessary or unimportant technical details.
Lead by example. Some leaders try to ask for 80 percent work, only to get frustrated with the outcome of their request. Stay aware of the words and actions you use with your employees; it only takes one round of critical feedback to drastically change perceptions.
When I talk to people about the most meaningful work they have been lucky enough to be a part of, their examples and stories are never about the agony of making a mistake. Instead, they're about creative brainstorming, finding the successful but unproven solution, and making a positive difference for the end user. Not coincidentally, all these descriptors are also outcomes of applying the 80 percent mentality.
Don't make the same mistake I did with my house project; give yourself and your team a break and avoid the 100 percent solution when you can. With a little practice, you will quickly find that your team will get more results from doing less.
Psychological Safety and the 80 Percent Solution
Another factor that can help teams align and commit to an 80 percent mentality is creating an environment of psychological safety, which is the ability for any team member to share ideas, questions, and challenges without being punished. A large amount of research indicates that if a leader can foster a sense of psychological safety, the team is more creative, productive, and engaged.
A hallmark of psychological safety is minimizing the negative consequences of taking risks and potentially making a mistake. A psychologically safe team believes that team members have good intentions, risks are an important part of accomplishing challenging goals, and everyone makes mistakes. Each of those beliefs greatly enhances a team's ability to execute on the 80 percent mentality.
Whether a team is psychologically safe is based on the leader's actions. Google's re:Work blog outlines numerous leader actions that foster psychological safety. Here are some of my favorites:
- Avoid placing blame ("Why did you do this?") and focus on solutions ("How can we work together …").
- Share information about your personal work style and preferences, and encourage teammates to do the same.
- Step in if team members talk negatively about another team member.
- Explain the reasoning behind your decisions.
- Model vulnerability; share with your teammates your personal perspective on work and failures.
This list is a striking example of the simple but powerful actions a leader can take to positively influence the team's effectiveness. By modeling and fostering psychological safety, leaders can create a better workplace that is more productive and, yes, also more focused on the 80 percent mentality.