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Transneptune

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In Defense of the Last 20%

February 22nd, 2013 by Kit

There’s an idea right now, in our culture, that if you can at least get something to 80% done, you’re doing well. You see this all over, in the start-up world especially, in ideas like minimum viable product, Agile’s ethos of always being able to push a new release, and so on.

I think that this is great. But it’s also horrible and toxic.

The problem, as I see it, with the 80% solution, is that if you start with that in mind, and reach that 80%, you are very unlikely to ever reach 100%. Everything will be good enough, not good. The last 20% makes that difference.

Why won’t you reach 100% if you aim for 80%? Because the last 20% is hard.

The Unbearable Hardness of Detail

The last 20% is hard for many reasons, but the big one, to my mind, is that it is detail work. The first 80% is, for the most part, at a gross scale. You rush forward, wave after wave of effort, breaking new ground and making new functionality, making something out of nothing. The last 20% is all the trim and polish, the tightening, paring, smoothing, cleaning. The difference betwen something that works and something that works well.

For those of us who excel at reaching 80%, the detail work is exhausting in part because we don’t get the same feeling of reward from it. The value of doing work in that last 20% is less visible. We put in a bunch of work to tighten things up, and only after a lot of use and reflection on that use do we see the payoff for it.

Further, the individual pieces of this detail work often don’t have much value, even though they have tremendous value in the aggregate. Consider software development for a moment. Unit tests are part of the last 20% (and, if you’re good at TDD, are something you do before you reach the 80% functionality mark—more about that later). One unit test, for one method on one class in your project, has almost no value. Full test coverage on one class still has pretty trivial value. Full test coverage on all your classes has tremendous value.

Compared to the gross-scale work, which has a roughly linear value-to-work curve, the detail work has an exponential curve, but one that starts out well below the linear curve of gross-scale work. Add to this the fact that, if you do all the 20% work at the end, you already have a working product, and you will find that the 20% work very quickly seems not-worth-it—it has dipped below the threshold of “is this work worth my time”.

Soft Emotional Underbellies and Leaps of Faith

So, can’t we just solve this by saying “hey, this will pay off down the road a bit, keep going!”? No. Try as we might, we humans are bad at believing in the future. And in the context of start-up-culture projects especially, this is with good reason.

Quite simply, we don’t know whether what we’re doing is the thing we should be doing, or whether we’ll achieve it if it is. To embark on the project of detail work, where we have to delay our rewards and put in a lot of work before we see much result is frightening because of the very real possibility that circumstances will not let us reach that stable point on the other side.

So we hedge. We hedge against the financial cost, of course. In any start-up, the time before you have a product is a horrible dangerous time, when you can feel yourself skating on thin ice. You need to get something out so that you can have some stabilizing cash- or attention-flow. But we also hedge against the emotional cost. Because, as much as it risks our ability to keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies, working on something only to see it fall through, to see that work in pieces on the ground, is also a real punch in the feels.

Aside: Why do we care?

Does that 20% work really matter? Why? Obviously, I think it does. To me, it has intrinsic virtue. But I hope that I can convince the skeptic in my head that this virtue is real.

If 80% is our mark for something that works, it can be very hard to see why we should aim beyond that point. If it works, it works, and that’s all, right?

That, to me, is an incredibly pessimistic view. There is so much space above minimally-acceptable, and I think it is our duty as humans to aspire to exist in that space. The sublime feeling of correctness that comes from keeping one’s tools in order, from truly good customer service, from a tool that extends just a bit past your own understanding of your need and is there, like Jeeves, with just the right thing when you discover you need it, is not to be underestimated. It reduces friction, enabling us to go further, think clearer, live better.

What can we do?

Given that the last 20% is so hard, but also so valuable, what can we do to make sure we do it? Well, first, we can acknowledge, deeply and in the very fibers of our being, that creating things is hard. There is no shortcut, no silver bullet, nothing that will change the fact that creation is hard mental, emotional, and sometimes physical work.

But, as with anything hard, there are things we can do to help ourselves through it. If our goal is to get to the top of Everest, we don’t need to go up the North ridge, we can take the Southeast ridge. Still hard, incredibly hard, but we’ve used our wits to prepare and give ourselves the best chance of success we can.

What I find helpful (he says, hardly being an expert craftsman) is to intermix the rewarding, energizing, 80% work with the important, tiring, difficult 20% work. I call this the “spoonful of sugar” approach. By keeping in my head a clear vision of the end-state, how good I want this thing to be, I can remember that the 20% work is valuable, and will enable me to make a product I can be proud of. By remembering this all throughout the process, I can keep myself from eating my desert (the 80% work) first.

The real craft, I think, comes in knowing just how to mix these kinds of work such that you are not caught in the small details with no hope of escape, nor stuck at 80% with no will to work further. As with everything in life, it’s a middle way. Of course, I’d rather have an 80% product than no product, but I’d much rather have a 100% product than an 80% product. At the risk of sounding like a stereotypical American, satisfactory is not enough.

Craft is as deep a human mystery as love, and not something I expect to solve, but I’m curious: what do you do to help yourself make something that navigates the treacherous waters between perfectionism and good-enough-ism? How do you do that 20%?

(Many thanks to @strasa and @worldnamer for the conversations that lead to this.)

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  • Dan Maruschak

    I’m not sure I follow the argument that the “always be ready to push a new release” ethos feeds into 80% thinking. I’m not an Agile expert, but my impression of Scrum, at least, was that the point was to reframe the project so you could get to 100% on each sprint and not trick yourself into believing that the last 20% was just trivial finishing touches rather than where the real hard work has to happen.

  • Maybe; my experience with Agile is that it emphasizes achieving something now over maybe achieving something later, which, don’t get me wrong, is great. But is also usually coupled with “pare this down until it’s something you can do now”.

  • Stras

    Good post.

    One additional thought. There are people to whom detail work is blissful focus and their bread and butter. In the ‘what can we do’ section I also suggest delegation. If you find some of these fine detail-oriented people having them lead, focus on, or even do the 20% while you push for the 80 will help.

    The best solution I’ve found is to let them divvy up the 20% into concrete goals and tasks. Often just knowing what all the steps of the 20% are inflates into a larger percentage, but it’s a larger percentage that ‘feels’ more like the first 80%.

  • Yes, absolutely! I totally forgot to include that bit. Different people have different sweet spots between “this is too much to do” and “this isn’t worth my time”, and an ideal team mixes such people well.