Are L&D professionals letting the perfect be the enemy of the good?


“You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

The first time I heard someone say that was 7 or 8 years ago. I had hired a lean consultant to help out with a process at my organization, and this idea of  not letting the perfect get in the way of something that was “good enough” gave me a jolt.

I never liked the idea of “good enough.” I was definitely in agreement with the psycho music instructor from the movie Whiplash when he said: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job'”.

Yet there it was.  

As I reflected on it at the time, I grew to like the idea.

It wasn’t about settling for mediocrity, it was about keeping things moving forward. Our facilitator never said: “You should be happy with good enough.” All he was saying was: once you have something that’s good enough, then get it in front of people, observe what you’ve put in front of them, and constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve it.

I came across a perfect example of this recently when Rachel Barnum described the process that her organization has used in re-imagining the way they do post-training evaluation forms. Did they wait until they had the perfect solution to their Level 1 training feedback conundrum? No. Did they shy away from trying something new because they didn’t have the perfect solution? No. They simply revised their evaluation forms knowing it wasn’t a perfect solution, and they will continue to revise the form until it yields the data they’re looking for.

Just before Thanksgiving, The Little Mermaid opened for a five-week run in Seattle. Last week I had a chance to see a rehearsal just before the show opened. It was a lot of fun and I had a chance to watch the actors rehearse some of my favorite numbers, including Under the Sea.

When the actors finished singing and dancing, the director immediately erupted, shouting “I want to shoot myself every time you guys do that song! I need to hear all of the words! Do it again, please!”

Selfishly I thought this was great because it’s a fun song and it was fun watching the actors sing and dance to it, and on this occasion I had an opportunity to see them do it twice!

As a lay person in the audience, I thought the first time they did it was just fine. The director, who probably knows a lot more about the technical aspects of the production, had a different opinion. Was he going to postpone the five-week run of the show because the actors couldn’t get everything just perfect? No. Was he going to allow the cast to settle for a performance that he felt could be better? No.

As L&D professionals, we should certainly strive to be more perfect every day (like this director), but we can’t be afraid to put things in front of our learners or our clients more quickly out of fear that they’re not perfect. Rachel and the folks on her training team put forth a great example of how it can and should work in our field.

Do you have an example of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good? Or perhaps you have an example of a time when the perfect was the enemy of the good? Either way, I’d love to hear your experiences in the Comment section.

5 thoughts on “Are L&D professionals letting the perfect be the enemy of the good?

  1. Eric Ries, in his book “The Lean Start-Up,” refers to this same concept as the Minimum Viable Product. If you’d like more on this topic, the book is a great read. I love the idea to begin where we are, and engage from there. Thanks for the great articulation and reminder.

  2. Totally agree Brian. Right before I left eCornell, we experimented with an agile approach to course development and focused on producing a course in two weeks instead of months. It was very much driven by accelerating contact between the course and real learners to identify if/where changes/enhancements were needed and reduce endless rounds of perfecting the good enough by IDs and faculty. It wasn’t easy, nor a perfect solution to the challenge, but it did help us test lots of assumptions.

    • Thanks Chris. That’s exactly the kind of approach I think can make L&D efforts both more efficient (quicker to get in front of learners) AND more effective (iterate based on feedback, not on assumptions we hold about the learners/content).

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