“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
Albert Einstein

via Wikimedia Commons

I have realized over my 40 year career that in most business situations you should never have an idealist or a perfectionist in charge of a critical project.

During the early days of my tenure as a Global head of HR, towards the end of my corporate career, I put together a team to develop a much needed dual career path structure for our software development organisation that would ensure that we did not needlessly push brilliant people into management positions, when they really wanted to remain as individual contributors but with greater recognition, influence, prestige and compensation. The head of one of my HR departments volunteered to head up the team and accepted a deadline of 6 weeks for completion.

We had regular weekly review meetings of his department’s general activities, and the dual career path project as a part of these, and the updates suggested that all was tracking to plan right up until the 5th week into the project when he asked me for a 2 week extension. This sounded the first warning bells, but as I had believed that the original time scale was tight anyway I accepted his reasoning and acquiesced.

Author: Alphamu57; GNU FD license; via Wikimedia Commons

The following week, having now become a trifle nervous, I decided to delve into the project more deeply, and was staggered to find that the team, under his direction and encouragement, had greatly extended the scope of the project to cover a full job grading and classification system, across every division of the entire company of over 35,000 people, across more than 70 countries. Their plan had been to present to me, at the end of the project timeline, not a solution to the pressing problem of a dual career path offering for our software development organisation, but a grandiose project plan covering 12 months, and a horde of contributors, to this now vastly expanded project scope. A veritable “thing of beauty”, but not delivering a solution to a desperate need of the business.

I had made some basic but critical management errors.

Firstly, I had not been bloody-minded enough in ensuring that my project manager had understood, accepted and committed in blood that the project was for a dual career path only, even though this fact was clearly stated in the project plan. Also, rather than relying totally on trust, I should have dug more deeply into the actual project activities during our weekly review meetings.

Secondly, and most sadly, I had believed that one of my HR people could head a team to solve a real business problem. This would come with time, but I had inherited an HR organisation that did not yet understand that there are no such things as HR problems, only business problems that HR need to help to solve.

Thirdly, and most critically, I had used someone to lead the project who believed that, given enough resources, time and money not only could he solve the one critical issue that he had been tasked with, but he could solve all human woes, including world hunger, at the same time.

I had allowed an idealist to take charge, rather than a pragmatist.

I removed him from the team lead role, replaced him with one of the other team members who actually worked in the software development organisation, and who had a personal interest in the outcome, and had a workable solution in 3 more weeks.

It was not perfect in every way, and it took a few iterations, adjustments and some tweaking over the years, but it quickly solved a serious problem facing the business, and had an immediate impact on the career choices for some of our brightest and most valuable employees.

I have found that, apart from some obvious areas of finance, there are no perfect solutions in the business world. There are only good solutions and better ones. No business strategy is ever 100% perfect and the skill needed from management is to know when to stop talking and planning, and when to start execution, with the understanding that some “do it, try it, fix it” will ultimately bring greater results than trying to reach perfection before actually making a start.

Generally, a 70-80% solution to a business problem that has been thought through by smart, capable and experienced people within a reasonable time scale, and which is well executed, will have significantly more chance of success than tying up a team for an excessive amount of time in the hope that they can get close to a 100% solution.

I am not suggesting that critical strategic decisions should be taken haphazardly and without allocating the right people and enough time to do them justice, but I have found, over and over again, that the more time you allocate to a project, the more time it will take, and that the quality of the solution will not increase proportionately to the amount of extra time that is allocated, as was so well postulated by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1955 in an essay in the Economist.

A strategy that is well enough thought through to be a good fit with the team’s needs, its capabilities, values and culture, that is well communicated and with excellent execution is what is needed for success, and in today’s fast moving and ever changing business landscapes, no-one has the luxury of excessive time for over-deliberation and discussion.

As so well put by Jack Welch “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.”

Author: Hamilton83; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons



  1. Thierry says:

    Could also be a general managerial illustration of the Law of decreasing marginal returns ? Or is it that idealism and perfectionism are character attributes asymptotically leading to a maximum outcome under an infinite time and resource constraint ? (-, Joke apart I will take pragmatism over conceptual ism any time in a conceptual world and vice versa.

  2. John says:

    Your example is very good—-and, also, reflects, I think, more issues at work than idealism and perfectionism. In a fast changing world, transparency and real time commuinication with all team members and constituents, particularly keeping one’s boss informed, is necessary to build trust and confidence, and to avoid numerous pitfalls. Hidden agendas versus common, well understood goals can be a slippery slope, especially for those putting their own interests, or their own view of what is best for the organization, ahead of clearly and well established goals for the team and organization without appropriate communication and support?

    • Les says:

      John, I think that the real issue is that he wanted to “make his mark”, when all I wanted was a solution to a problem. Les

  3. Simona Berca says:

    I like it very much. I experienced all these on my own skin. Human nature: we learn out of our mistakes…hopefully :). Simona

    • leshayman says:

      I am not sure that we always learn from our mistakes. For example in France we often hand over the country to the Socialists, despite the fact that they always make a mess of their time in power. As they say, if you do not learn from your mistakes you are condemned to repeat them. Les

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