Jon Ferry

August 10th, 2010

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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

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.

In Summary

Ask your team three questions:

  1. Where did we succeed?
  2. Where did we fail?
  3. 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.