Aim High, but Make Sure You Shoot

Rebranding, “Done Is Better than Perfect”

“Worse is better,” is the perfect blend of catchy and counterintuitive. It’s a meme; it captures a trend, its catchiness enables its spread, and bolstered its traction as an idea. The phrase was originally used by Richard Gabriel in his paper, “Lisp: Good News,Bad News, How to Win Big.”

These days, I’ve seen, as you may have, permutations of that theme; “Done is better than perfect,” “Move fast and break things,” and “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” come to mind. Many of the products out there today exist as a result of this “Worse is better” philosophy, and thus, perpetuate it.

Facebook is the most prominent example, literally using the first two quotes in the previous paragraph as mantras for their employees to rally behind, prioritizing speed and task completion. In 2014, shortly after Facebook had a billion active users, they rebranded the phrase as, “Move fast, with stable infra.”

The idea here is when Facebook finally became the biggest social network in the world, it could afford to finally slow down and prioritize getting things right. The new phrase, “Move fast with stable infra,” at least puts quality on the same priority as speed. Or as Gabriel writes in his paper, “Therefore, the worse-is-better software first will gain acceptance, second will condition its users to expect less, and third will be improved to a point that is almost the right thing.”

We’re now dealing with the consequences of this rather extreme mindset (literally, at Facebook); this mindset often accumulates debt. Temporary compromises are not revisited or improved upon; instead teams are focused on building new features, and on growing the business even more.

The line that stood out to me from a rebuttal of Gabriel’s thoughts, is this one by Nickieben Bourbaki: “It is never a good idea to intentionally aim for anything less than the best, though one might have to compromise in order to succeed.”

“Quality is the best business plan,” Pixar’s John Lasseter says to Fast Company. Similarly, economist Tyler Cowen says, “The returns to quality are higher than you think, and they are rising rapidly.”

The tradeoff is not as extreme as you think; and at the end of the day, as Steve Jobs — probably one of the biggest proponents of quality — now famously said, “Real artists ship.” Worse is definitely not better; and compromises should be minimized by the time a release comes up.

The world’s best brands and products — Pixar, Patagonia, Apple —  do place value in speed, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to tradeoff quality for it. They work smarter. For example, they might listen more closely to customers (“…the keyword is discovering instead of inventing. There simply is no time for inventing,” Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard writes in Let My People Go Surfing). Or, they make sure to pick the right strategies to focus their efforts on by tapping into collective intelligence (see Pixar’s Notes Day). Or, they make big bets and commit to them (see how Tony Fadell brought the iPod to life in 11 months).

Bourbaki coins an alternate saying best, wistfully writing, “Maybe Richard means one should aim high but make sure you shoot—sadly he didn’t say that.” Perhaps it’s time we took that approach with our work too, cutting as few corners into our work as possible, while making sure that we release it to the world. The world doesn’t just need more products; it needs better products.