In the 18 years I have lived in Austin, I have seen the city grow to be the 11th largest city in the United States by population.  Despite this massive growth, the city still has the sleepy infrastructure of the small town it was in the 1980s.  Unfortunately, that means that I get to spend a lot of time sitting in traffic contemplating life.

One thing the traffic gets me thinking about is our sad history with a light rail system that might alleviate traffic.  Twice in my years in Austin a rail system has been put up to a vote, and twice it has been voted down.  The standard complaint by voters is that the initial routes that would be built are not the ideal routes for the system. 

I find this excuse frustrating, because it is easy to shoot down an ambitious project by focusing primarily on its flaws.  This type of thinking can lead to organizational paralysis (not to mention some of the worst traffic of any major metropolitan area). 

As someone who mentors many PhD students in their quest for a degree, I also watch students struggle with finding a dissertation project.  Each set of studies they think of has limitations, and they reject one idea after another.  My advice to them is to remember that the best dissertation is a completed dissertation.  A dissertation should not be the best piece of work the student ever does.  That would be a shame, because it means that every project after that is an anticlimax.

Unfortunately, many people and organizations struggle with some version of this problem, which is well captured by the saying "The perfect is the enemy of the good."  It is easy to demonstrate that any new idea has flaws.  And it is important to repair as many of those flaws as possible before implementing a new idea.

However, it is virtually impossible to roll out any large project--whether it is a rail system, a piece of software, or a dissertation--without running into some problems.  It is a poor excuse to reject a project just because it has some flaws.

Instead, you have to start by setting expectations properly.  Acknowledge that the new project will be an improvement over the past, but that it will be a work-in-progress from the start.  Encourage people to make constructive criticisms.  The reason to find problems is to create opportunities to fix those problems rather than to rail against the project.

That means that you have to have systems in place for gathering negative feedback about a new program.  You have to build into the budget some support for groups who will evaluate that negative feedback and develop corrections for it.  After all, people will only give constructive criticism for as long as they think there are people listening to it and acting on it. 

Finally, you have to institute periodic reviews to prevent projects from getting stale. Roughly every five years, you need to seek out data to tell you both what is working well and what is not.  Then, you need to create an agenda for enhancing the successes and fixing the remaining flaws.  

This is the strategy we engaged when we created the masters program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas.  We spend 18 months working with a core group of faculty to develop a curriculum to teach people in business about people.  Then, we rolled out the program.  There were flaws.  We did not always get the logistics of class days quite right.  There were elements of the curriculum that needed to be fixed.  Students gave us lots of feedback.  And we made a lot of changes along the way--fixing the structure of our class days and reorienting some of our classes.  And this year as the program entered its fifth year, we also held a number of retreats with faculty, staff, and external advisory board members to chart a course for continuing to improve the program in the next five years. 

Ultimately, we often hear that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  What we do not often hear is that it does not matter that much if that first step is not in the ideal direction.  At least you are moving. And you can always reorient yourself as you go.

Published on: Jul 27, 2016
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