Good enough, is. Gets better.


I have worked with government now for about 15 years and somewhere in that period I became infected with Public Service Renewal disease.  I call it that because that was I how I first learned to articulate it. But you could also call it Blueprint 2020, Destination 2020, Gov.20, Agile Government, Open Government or the current favorite, Digital Government.

One of the differences I have noticed between the federal government and other sectors of society is a preoccupation with obligation. The bureaucracy of government sees itself as obligated to meet a higher standard. Mistakes are rarely tolerated and staff routinely strive to achieve the impossible;  programs that will measurably create results with no risk.  The goal is laudable but consider for a moment how difficult it is to achieve societal goals that are actually measurable in a 4-8 year term. Society changes, but it does so in decades and in ways that economists struggle to understand much less measure. The other side of the equation is risk and as my mother used to say; ” nothing ventured, nothing gained”, venture implies risk so if you are unwilling to risk being wrong for fear of unfavorable media attention, or just because you want to create the perfect solution, you are doomed to an eternity of cost overruns and mediocre results.

Part of the problem is the way that accountability and reward are structured. Senior managers with performance pay are motivated to eliminate mistakes are frequently adopt a strategy of micro-managing. Because that is so unsustainable they quickly become overwhelmed with details.  When they are presented with an innovation that will take some additional effort, it is much easier to say no.

I started this post with the statement, “good enough, is”.   Early in my career, (decades ago now), I was working for the engineering group in a telecommunications firm, I was writing the project charter for a five-year multi-million dollar product transformation. Working with one of the executives articulating project principles, and he insisted that one of them should be  “Good enough, is”.  His rationale was that engineers were constantly almost finishing projects, and then thinking of better, more elegant solutions and restarting the entire effort. This constant pursuit of the very best was getting in the way of actually shipping a product. It struck me then as interesting, and worthy of consideration in realms beyond engineering and telecommunications.

Since those days I have come across the sentiment expressed in a number of ways, from “perfection is the enemy of good”, to perfection is a moving target, to the minimum viable product. Whatever you call it, I think it is worth reflecting on the question of whether you and your team are pursuing excellence at the expense of good enough. In these days of extreme demands and minimal resources, ask yourself is it worth the price?

Recently I have been encouraged by all the talk about bringing Agile processes into more aspects of government. But one thing that concerns me is I am not sure that folks understand that “good enough is” lies at the heart of the process.  I suspect that a few public servants with a passion for excellence, can pretty easily kill agile with good intentions.  We have to remember that agile is an iterative process. We need to build this into our thinking. Each iteration of a policy or service development cycle may be just good enough, but that is OK, because we can make it better in the next iteration. This leads to the next challenge which is making the iterations short enough, as in next quarter rather than in five years.

KaizenThis is not to say I think the public service should under-achieve. The idea of “Good enough, is” should always be countered by the concept of Kaizen or continuous improvement. The dynamic tension is a healthy thing.

What do you think?

Note: This post originally appeared on the Government Executive Blog.

About Thom Kearney

Change agent, teacher, arts, science, open government, father, mentor, storyteller, husband, dog owner,collaborator, not necessarily in that order.
This entry was posted in Culture, Leadership, Positive Change, Rant. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Good enough, is. Gets better.

  1. Bev Mitelman says:

    Thom, you are dead on. I have come to the same conclusions…albeit perhaps the “hard” way. Perfection is a concept that does not exist. And is further complicated by an ever-changing environment, as the definition of perfection is not constant. My parents once told me that they raised me “the best they could, with the information they had at the time”. I like that a lot. I’ve adopted it as mantra of sorts. “We do the best we can, with the information we have at the time.”


  2. Thom Kearney says:

    Thank you for the comment Bev. My father never said it, but I think his epitaph should have been “do the best you can with what you got”, when you combine that with a philosophy of continuous improvement I think we have a pretty good formula for moving ahead.


  3. Ryan Androsoff says:

    Couldn’t agree more Thom. There are lots of incentives that push us in government towards trying to find “100%” solutions (be that measured by completeness, accuracy, etc.). Yet increasingly we know that to deal with modern challenges, speed trumps all. Getting your Deputy an 80% answer in time to make a decision is far more useful than a 100% answer after it is too late. Yet we still struggle culturally with sending something “up” or releasing projects where not all the “i”s are dotted and “t”s crossed. I’m encouraged by the increasing chatter about building in a beta-testing culture into government, I just hope everyone is walking into that eyes-wide-open as to what it will actually mean in practice and can adjust their expectations accordingly.


  4. Thom Kearney says:

    Thanks Ryan,
    Yes it can be hard to embrace a “culture of imperfection”, I think the idea of continuous improvement takes some of the sting out though…we will never be perfect, but we can always be better!


  5. MEGeres says:

    Thom, you wrote, “Whatever you call it, I think it is worth reflecting on the question of whether you and your team are pursuing excellence at the expense of good enough. In these days of extreme demands and minimal resources, ask yourself is it worth the price?”

    As a GoC project management practitioner I believe that if a PM methodology (e.g. PRINCE2) is not tailored, it is unlikely that the project management effort and approach will be appropriate for the needs of the project. This can lead to ‘robotic’ project management at one extreme (the method is followed without question) or ‘heroic’ project management at the other extreme (the method is not followed at all).

    Over the past few years, on occasion, I’ve felt discouraged and disillusioned because more and more often I perceive that a significant number of senior managers and corporate executives view project management as “overhead”, that PMBOK or PRINCE2 based work performed by PMs is not value-added. Excellence in project management comes at too high a price.

    Only a few weeks ago, over lunch, I was told by a veteran, accredited, project manager friend that project management is hogwash—that the bottom line is delivering results and that project management practices just get in the way.

    It’s not easy to accept that project management is “overhead”.

    it’s essential to balance competing project constraints including, but not limited to: scope, quality, schedule, budget, resources, and risk is essential.

    Often, IMHO, schedule gets the most attention—-at the expense of quality and budget. Often poor project estimating has contributed to a schedule that is not viable. Yet, ‘heroic’ project management seems to thrive in this type of environment.

    Applying project management best-practices from a GoC project management practitioner’s perspective—good enough, is?

    I love learning!


    • MEGeres says:


      I think that having a good definition of “success” on each project is really important.

      IMHO, it’s unlikely though that a project management practitioner would be advised, in writing, when assigned a project that success will be meeting a schedule—-at the expense of quality and budget.


      “The ultimate purpose of project management is to create a continuous stream of project successes. This can happen provided that you have a good definition of “success” on each project.” –––– Harold Kerzner, Ph.D.


  6. Thom Kearney says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Mark.
    Have to to agree with most of what you are saying. PM is a balancing act between the schedule, budget and quality and the skilled manager finds a way to achieve the balance that keeps everyone happy.

    Regarding your first post, it rings true to me that sometimes following a process without understanding and adapting that process to the unique project at hand can lead to what will be perceived as overheard (and I think in some cases is overhead that does not add real value). I am reminded of two things; 1. the more experienced your team the less formal process you need, and 2. applying PM principles and techniques according to the needs of the the project and people involved is key, a good enough is approach that keeps the project outcomes clearly in mind will, IMHO result in those sceptical senior managers becoming believers.

    I look forward to the discussion on Sept 17th.


  7. Wonderful, thank you Thom. I love learning and your helping hand up is sincerely appreciated. Now to roll up my sleeves and find that “good enough”–all the while focusing on keeping everybody happy. That being said, I’ll work too on my PM practitioner negotiating skills. Be vigilant—recognizing or anticipating potential for unhappy project stakeholders (sponsor, customer and users, partners, functional managers, etc.), and negotiate a project-level “good enough” that they can live with. This I can do! Cheers+


  8. Hi Thomas: I love learning!

    Could it be, that if we developed our GoC-wide knowledge/competencies and applied Value Analysis (VA) in the public sector that identification of “Good enough, is…” would be easier?

    I was thinking earlier today that if we did, as individuals, we’d likely hit the mark more often—find the right balance between perfection and good enough?


    Value Analysis (VA), also known as Value Engineering (VE), is a systematic and function-based approach to improving the value of products, projects, or processes. Value Analysis uses a combination of creative and analytical techniques to identify alternative ways to achieve objectives.

    For example, “How can I improve value in projects and maximize the use of Resources?”

    A: VA can help balance key stakeholder needs with resources. Defining the project/process or problem through functions generates a common understanding of objectives. The VA/VE team generates alternatives that use the minimum resources necessary to deliver desired outcomes. The Project Management Institute’s PMBOK references Value Engineering as technique commonly used in project management to optimize value in projects.

    Source: Frequently Asked Questions – Canadian Society of Value Analysis |

    PMI’s definition of “Value Engineering”: An approach used to optimize project life cycle costs, save time, increase profits, improve quality, expand market share, solve problems, and/or use resources more effectively.

    Source: Glossary of the 2013 Project Management Institute. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) – Fifth Edition


  9. Thom Kearney says:

    I was not familiar with Value Analysis Mark, thanks for exposing me to it. Might be worth some discussion on Wednesday at the CPSEN event. . I look forward to the session.


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