The 95% problem - SmartBrief

All Articles Leadership Careers The 95% problem

The 95% problem

4 min read


Work is going well. You are good at what you do, and so is your team and maybe even the whole company. Deadlines and expectations are met and even exceeded; people are not just competent but inquisitive and innovative; and if the culture’s not perfect, it’s at least one that most speak highly of. Of all the things you, your team or company could be doing well, you’re probably achieving 95% of them. And that’s where the worry begins.

Getting 95% of the way to something can be a good thing. It’s an A in school; if you’re running a marathon, you’ve run nearly 25 miles. A lot has been accomplished, and what remains pales by comparison. But 95% can also bring forth intense worry and frustration: If you’re aiming for the $10 million X Prize for a car that can go 100 miles on one gallon, 95% of the way there is a nothing but a talented loser.

If we’re talking about operational quality, then 95% efficiency is an invitation to nit-pick, to lament the 5% not achieved, to use the guise of being unsatisfied as an excuse to unload criticism. It’s easy to ask, “Why aren’t we doing this better?” and omit “We’re doing so many things well. Great work!”

The 95% mark is also a convenient stopping point for the complacent, tired or uninterested, and this is probably what many frustrated and critical leaders fear most. “This is pretty good, so we can just work on maintaining this,” people or companies might say. ” After all, nobody’s perfect, so 95% is just fine.”

So, we should ask, how can 95% be a reward and a motivator to do even better? How does “What’s next?” act to acknowledge success and hard work while also advancing the conversation? This should be an ongoing conversation, and I won’t have most, much less all, of the answers. But I will argue that reflection, not action, is the first step. Here are a few questions you might ask:

  1. What in the 5% is crucial to fix? If your company is great at pitching to and acquiring clients, great at project management, has a track record of strong culture, hiring and retention, but is bad at customer service with older clients after the honeymoon phase, you might be good at 95% of the job, but that is a big deficiency. Probably worth tackling before, say, the lousy coffee (not that I don’t love good coffee!).
  2. What can I tackle now that I’ve reached this point? This is a question for companies, managers and individuals, but let’s focus on you. If you’ve been onboarded, or taken on new responsibilities or projects, and have now attained proficiency, organization and comfort, your 5% may lie in dormant opportunities. Perhaps they are skills you’ve wanted to develop, a management opportunity, the chance to brainstorm or enact ideas, or even a different job or career. Now that you’re not struggling to simply get through the day, your 5% is about what’s next, not about refining what you already are.
  3. How could your company be better aligned? This is crucial for teams or companies that scramble because of rapid growth, reorganization or downsizing. They get the work done, and employees are the better for the situation and skills they had to master on the fly, but they might not be in the best situations for their strengths. The 5% here, much like an employee who needs to look forward, is about optimizing people and processes for the future rather than further tinkering with what works. It’s also a time to acknowledge the efforts and success of your team.
  4. What is special about our/my 95% that can be capitalized on? Here, I look to Dan Rockwell of Leadership Freak, who recently wrote a post with the tough-love title “Forget About Being the Best.” He focuses on the need for determining your unique value and then creating it. Among his points:
  1. Look for the one word that best describes your unique value.
  2. Ask new customers for the best word that describes their experience with your organization.

What questions am I missing? Am I simply off-base? Let me know in the comments.

James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief and manages SmartBlog on Leadership. He edits SmartBrief’s newsletters on leadership and entrepreneurship, among others. You can find him on Twitter discussing leadership and management issues @SBLeaders.