The wisdom of low quality

There are some things in life where it’s important to do a great job. For example, the difference between being an OK musician and a great musician is an enormous amount of work … but it’s worth it, both to the musician and the audience.

Surprisingly, there are things where it’s NOT important to do a great job – it’s only important to do it. And trying to do a great job where you shouldn’t can actually prevent you from doing a great job where you should.

I thought about this yesterday while shoveling snow. The difference between shoveling and not shoveling is huge – you can’t get your car out of the driveway if you don’t clear a path. But the difference between shoveling and shoveling perfectly is insignificant. Does it really matter if there are little strips of snow between shovel strokes? Does it really matter if the sidewalk has perfectly square edges? No. It’s snow – it’s going to melt eventually anyway. Just push the snow around to clear a path for your car and clear a path for pedestrians as quickly as possible – time saved doing a mediocre job shoveling is time that can be spent doing something more worthwhile.

So what about building a startup – is there anything like shoveling snow in a startup, something that’s more important to DO than to DO WELL?

One thing that comes to mind is managing email. Fred Wilson spoke about email the other day – he gives it an hour in the morning, an hour at night, and maybe an hour in the middle. He does what he can during that time, but he’s not willing to invest more in the overall process. For him, “doing email” seems to be like my shoveling the driveway – just get as much of it done as possible, but it can never be perfect.

I’ve never emailed Fred Wilson, but I have corresponded with Brad Feld and Seth Godin, two other famous startup people who receive a shocking amount of email yet respond personally to any reasonable request, usually within 24 hours (in fact usually within 5 minutes). How do they do it?

For starters, their emails (at least to me) are very short. They trust that I will be thrilled to get a reply from them, so they don’t bother setting me up with useless niceties like “It’s very nice to meet you, Patrick …” It’s more likely to be a reply like “thanks” or “yes” or “not at this time.” Seth once gave me very quick feedback that I wrote something “generous,” which meant a lot to me, coming from him. I once asked Brad for an interview, and he simply replied back, including his assistant, saying “+1 [assistant’s name] please schedule.”

I want to be the kind of person who replies back to every email I receive and doesn’t leave loose ends. I am not that person yet – not even close. To get there, I’m pretty sure I need to learn what Brad and Seth (and probably Fred) were forced to learn a long time ago – it’s better to get email done than to get it done perfectly. If I don’t have an answer for a request, I’ve got to learn to reply back with something like “I have forwarded your message to a colleague, and I will let you know when I hear back” or even “I don’t know, but I will let you know if I find out.” That’s better than what I do now, which is stroke my chin, put it in a “tickler” folder that gets buried worse than my inbox, and never get back to it.

I want to answer every email with a wonderful nugget of helpfulness, but I simply can’t. Too often, that reality ends up burying me, which gets me down. And that feeling of defeat impacts my ability to do the rest of my job well.

The fancy word for this is satisficing: “a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than to identify an optimal solution.” Every email requires a decision. If you attempt to maximize every one of those decisions, you will never “finish” your email. That leaves you with a stack of unmade decisions which is worse than a stack of adequate – but completed – decisions.

Email is never going away. I just need to learn how to do each one a little bit more poorly – it’s better than not doing it at all. It’s counterintuitive, but the end result is actually “doing email” better.

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