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on diminishing returns

I should start by saying that I have often been assessed over my management career and have rarely, if ever, been classed as a Completer Finisher. That fact may colour what follows, but stay with me.

Regular readers of these musings will know that I am a fan of the Pareto principle in the sense that you can get 80% of the results with 20% of the effort and it is something that I have employed often over the years, especially in planning where you can get to a point that you have so much information that the answer is obvious, so give up and go with what you have.

This is the principle of Diminishing Returns; you have done well, but to continue will not yield the same productivity so stop there and move on.

It is not something that you should do every time. Take, for example, installing some plant where you will still get 80% there with 20% of the effort, but you do need to spend the other 80% effort to finish the job. I think that surgeons apply the same principle. or at east I hope that you will should they ever operate on me.

The point is knowing when to give up. Planning is a problem partly because people like planning. It is comfortable and you are not actually doing anything. The desire to get everything perfect is understandable, but there comes a point where you have to say go or you risk being late in delivering that which you are planning and too many times I have been lumbered with leading a project where the planning has not only gone past the necessary start date, but has also been so far out that the end date is hopelessly wrong. No plan survives first contact, so do your best and get cracking.

Another area of procrastination is in the bid process. There will be a deadline for submission of tenders and that will almost always be too optimistic anyway. You do your due diligence and costing and get the proposal written, but there will always be an element in the team who want to keep tweaking and adding. I remember once being drafted in on the last day before a tender submission for a French company. The bid had to be in French and the commercial translator had been booked to put our English into French, but their engagement ended 48 hours before the tender was due because it was to be printed in multiple copies and sent by courier across the Chanel.

Our team decided that they wanted last minute changes and would send the documents over with one of our team on the morning of the due date. Eurostar would have them in Paris in time they said and duly wrote their revisions, but overlooked that the translator had moved on to another job for another client. That was why I was there, although people’s faith in my technical French was touching to say the least, but I finished the changes late that evening, printed off the pages and rebound the bid documents before starting the drive to Ashford where I was due to meet our man who was taking the documents over.

About ten minutes after midnight the ‘phone in my car rang; “John? I’ve got some more changes…”

Despite it all we won that bid and were very pleased to do so, but there was no need; the client was only looking at price and delivery. They had already made their minds up that it did not matter which of their short list got the job as we were all capable. All of that stress and last minute polishing was just a waste of time and effort.

These things are a judgement call, but there needs to be strong leadership to sense when the moment has come to stop and move on, then to make that call and change tack.

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