Even the most cursory glance at any company brochure repeatedly throws up the word “excellence” or synonyms of it. The pursuit of excellence, perfection and rigour are much-celebrated aspirations, as they should be.
Performance appraisal systems across companies and industries also stress on individual excellence as a mark of progress. Of course, many of these aspirations might stay unrealized, but the brand value of perfection as the ideal goal is definitely well established.
The belief is that a distinctive professional stands apart from the pack because they’re driven to produce work that is superlative. Anyone who operates this way deserves our enthusiastic admiration and awe. They are worthy role models.
Yet, an obsession with rigour and excellence can also lead to the tendency to boil the ocean. Equally, paralysis by analysis can be a consequence of the cult of excellence. Attention to detail, for example, could lead someone to indecisiveness and inaction.
At the other end of this rigour spectrum is the need for speed, for action and for growth. The practice of doing “just enough” to get by is a norm too. Of course, scaling up rapidly has its own success, especially when it comes to creating new businesses, more so in the digital age. Yet, this speed comes with its own costs.
Managers, who take “gut calls” and fearless decisions, and look like action heroes in the near term, usually end up with more “misses” than “hits” in the long term. The business landscape is littered with companies that lost their way, flaming out and destroying investor wealth in the unthinking quest for rapidly moving forward and scaling up.
Individual careers have been similarly destroyed too.
The trade-off between being quick-footed and quality-obsessed is then an important one, as change, ambiguity and disruption becomes part of the course for organizations. Modern workplaces demand that you do both.
We call this powerful blend—combining working hard and working smart—agile rigour.
The need for you to get things done, and do so with a certain standard are, of course, important. Practising agile rigour would suggest an added quality—the ability to tweak and edit ideas and solutions that might have already been implemented, but need a rethink almost as they are being put into action.
In the world of technology, especially computer programming, agile methodology is now almost universally considered the smart way to build. It makes software engineering more flexible and efficient; and with nearly nine out of 10 organizations agile, it has become the industry standard for project management.
Simply, the agile way of development and project management, takes an iterative approach to software development. Agile projects consist of a number of smaller cycles—sprints. Each one of them is a project in miniature: it has a backlog and consists of design, implementation, testing and deployment stages within the pre-defined scope of work. At the end of each sprint, a potentially complete product feature is delivered. With the features being validated early in the development, the chances of delivering a potentially failed product are significantly lower.
Doing this isn’t easy, especially for talented and committed professionals, in all areas. Anybody who takes pride in their work, and feels accountable for the quality of output they generate, will find it difficult to submit work they know to not be entirely complete; or entirely perfect.
Individual contributors , especially, struggle with this. The urge for satisfaction from their work is often in conflict with the “build smart, fail fast” credo.
Being agile also requires talented professionals to be more selfless—to be guided more by the collective and shared goal of their team or organization, even when it entails them giving up their individual progress goals.
In our careers, we have worked with bosses and team leaders, who wanted options fully analysed before they would make a recommendation. They were almost afraid to decide and act because in the name of rigour they wanted to be doubly sure of their decisions.
In one case, we know of someone who built a massive and complex Excel model to simulate an entire industry and competitor moves to develop a way forward for the company. The manager was in love with the model and kept running scenario after scenario to find the “best” answer. Alas, the business situation changed significantly, and the seemingly perfect approach never saw the light of day. Rigour lost to timing.
The delicate, difficult tightrope walk between being responsive and quality-aware didn’t come easily to this professional, as it doesn’t to many of us.
Art of Work focuses on extreme choices in the workplace and offers suggestions on how to find the doable middle ground.
Pramath Raj Sinha has founded several higher education institutions and Shreyasi Singh is an author who now works in higher education.