Some companies I work with seem to be in a perpetual state of urgency. Meaning, everything is urgent, by definition. Folks are always running around “putting out fires,” rushing to meet deadlines or fixing things that they did last month that “went South.”
Many years ago, one of my more enlightened leaders, let’s call him Bob, asked me a question that has stuck with me all this time. He was excellent at setting collaborative goals and getting employees to own their work. One major project I worked on required a written report that would be presented to and read by all the executives. This of course lent a sense of urgency to the work and demanded that the information and conclusions be of the highest quality. On the day that the report was due to him, I confidently walked up and handed him the multi-page document and said, “Here’s my report on our project that is due today.”
Bob smiled at me and took the report. He didn’t open it. Instead, he respectfully held it in both hands, much like our Japanese colleagues would hold an offered business card, thought for a moment, and then said, “Dave, would this report be better than it is now if I gave you another two days to work on it?” Of course my mind immediately went through all the possible answers. I could say yes and thereby admitting that he didn’t have my best work and that I apparently didn’t plan my projects very well. I could say no and seal my fate — you have my best work and if you don’t think it’s “up to snuff,” then I’m not the person for this position. What was he thinking? What did he want to learn about the project and about me?
He could see that I was trying to think of the “right” response, but he didn’t let me off the hook. He patiently waited for my answer as I stared at the report in his hand. Finally, I said something to the effect of, “Thanks Bob. I’m sure I could find some typographical errors or poorly constructed sentences to fix. However, I do not think anything of substance would change. So if it is important for you to have the report on this day, then I’m happy with it. If you really do have some leeway, then I can likely make the report a bit more professional.”
I guess that my response was in line with what he had hoped it would be since he let me know that the executive meeting had been postponed by a couple of days and he didn’t need the report right away. However, he did keep it and said he would read it to see if he had any questions and suggested that I do the same and fix any minor errors I might find. He would take my “new and final report” on Monday morning for presentation to the executive committee on Monday afternoon.
We had a common saying in the semiconductor business — “Price, Quality, Delivery.” You can have any two but you can’t have all three. If you wanted a low price and fast delivery, we could do that for you. The quality of the product would not be as high as it could be. Perhaps we would not test as fully in order to save time and money to get you the product on time. If you needed high quality at a fair price, then you might have to accept a long lead time as we screened product and fully tested it prior to delivery. You get the point. Bob knew that this same concept applied to the work products of his staff. I have always remembered that question and the lesson it taught me.
How much research and analysis can I do before we make a decision about going to market? How much time do I give a complicated change initiative to make sure we have a high quality and detailed picture of business processes “as-is” state, projected future state and the gap between the two? The question is: Do I want a quality work product, minimal cost or do I focus on urgency?