The Poor Man’s Guide To Improvement
There’s an episode of the sitcom News Radio where Phil Hartman’s character, Bill McNeil, receives a review from critics saying he’s “adequate” (see clip). McNeil spends the duration of the show acting as if “adequate” was the highest compliment he could receive, until finally admitting “…Ok, look, you think I don’t know adequate sucks.”
Nobody wants to be adequate. That’s why there are thousands of books written on the topic of improvement. But you don’t need to read books or follow a complicated system to make positive changes. The Poor Man’s (or Woman’s) Guide to Improvement can be followed by teams or individuals, works on almost any project, and is easy to use. It starts with just three questions.
The first step to improvement is analysis. After you complete a project or iteration, and before you start your next one, ask your team three questions:
- Where did we succeed? Recognize the areas where you did well and understand why you did well. It’s good for motivation and reminds you that you are showing progress.
- Where did we fail? Some people think failure is a bad thing, but if you never fail, you’ll never know exactly what it is you’re doing that’s responsible for your success. Failure is a part of the learning process.
- What can we change? Now that your successes and failures are top of mind, list what you think will improve your process. Everyone on the team should contribute. Remember when your second grade teacher told you “there are no stupid questions”? In this case, there are no stupid answers. List whatever comes to mind related to the first two questions.
When you’re done answering these questions, it’s time for step two: change.
Change One Thing
Maybe your list of changes is long, maybe it’s short, either way you’re probably eager to start making some of the changes right away. Don’t do that. Instead, choose one thing to change in your next project. It can be the highest priority or it can be the easiest to implement, but make sure you only do one. Why only one? There’s a couple of reasons:
- It’s easier to manage. Change is risky. So the more things you change, the more you’re increasing the risk that something will go wrong during your process. By changing one thing, you minimize the risk. Also, it keeps you focused on the goal of the project, not on the project’s process.
- It’s easier to track. After you complete your project, you’ll be looking to see how your change affected your process. If you change too many things at once, you have no way of knowing exactly what change led to your success or failure. By changing one thing, you can see a direct correlation.
- It’s easier to measure. If you’re a painter, you love to paint. If you’re a designer, you love to design. If you’re an accountant, you love accounting. (Believe it or not, there are people who love accounting.) You want to do what you love to do, not spend your time doing measurements, calculations, and documentation on your process. If you change one thing, you only need to measure one thing, and you can spend the rest of your time doing what you love.
Stick with it
After you make your change and finish the project, ask yourself the three questions again before starting the next project. Keep repeating this process (ask the questions, make one change) after every iteration.
At some point your team will reach a level of quality and you may think to yourself: “We’re doing good. We don’t need to change anything anymore.” Beware of “good”. Good is the enemy of great. Remember that some team somewhere (maybe even in your own organization) is racing to get better, and if you get complacent, they will pass you. There’s never a limit to progress. You must always be looking forward.
Ask your team three questions:
- Where did we succeed?
- Where did we fail?
- What can we change?
Change one thing.
Repeat for every project or iteration.
After a few times doing this, you’ll be doing better work and grow more confident in your process and your ability to improve. Say goodbye to adequacy.