The Best Work Parable

I can’t remember when I first heard this great parable, and despite Googling around couldn’t find it online [see footnote], so I thought I’d take a moment to re-tell this pointed story here.

One day an employee is asked to write a proposal for a new business idea and submits it to his manager.

Employee:  “Did you get a chance to read my proposal yet? What did you think of it?”

Manager:  “You know, I need to ask you one question about that proposal — was it really your best work?”

Employee (reluctantly):  “No … , in fact, it was not.  I can think of several things I could have done better.”

Manager:  “Great, so please do those things and resubmit it to me.”

The employee then does additional work on the proposal and resubmits it to the manager.

Employee:  “Hi, did you review my revised proposal?  What did you think?”

Manager:  “Well, I need to ask you one question about that proposal”

Employee:  “Sure”

Manager:  “Does the revised proposal represent your best work?”

Employee (reluctantly):  “Well, no, while I think it’s much better than the first version, I still have several ideas for how to improve it.”

Manager:  “OK, so I’d like to ask you to implement those ideas and then resubmit the proposal to me.”

The employee then revises the proposal again and submits it for the third time to the manager.

Employee:  “Did you get a chance to review my proposal?  What did you think?”

Manager:  “Does this third proposal represent your best work?”

Employee:  “Yes.”

Manager:  “Great, so now I’ll read it.”

If you’re playing the role of employee, do you submit your best work on the first go?  If not, why not?  Why do you want your management reviewing low-quality work?

If you’re playing the manager, are your employees getting you to do their jobs for them by having you correct/revise their work into the desired form?  How can you set the bar so you get their best work on the first go?

[Footnote: while I couldn’t find this story via Googling several readers were kind enough to inform me that it appears to have been originally told about Henry Kissinger.  See here.]

10 responses to “The Best Work Parable

  1. Kissinger, reportedly (the key is to google variations of the punchline phrase)
    http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/coldwar/interviews/episode-15/lord1.html

    As with most parables it makes a clear point but is not particularly useful management advice. In particular, I think Vilfredo Pareto makes more sense… :-)

  2. Thanks Timo … I got another Twitter comment pointing it to Kissinger as well, here: http://www.govexec.com/excellence/executive-coach/2010/03/is-this-your-best-work/39706/

    As for what’s better, 80% right work or best work … like anything in business, it’s all situational. Some team members probably overdo / overfinish their work. But many, in my experience, want you to complete it for them. You could argue that itself a reaction to my style because perhaps they perceive that I want something done a certain way. Which is correct in one sense — I want it done well, but no, I don’t want to do it for you and/or complete it for you … which is what brought to mind the parable.

    Hope all well!

  3. Can’t agree. Obviously you want to get the essentials of a good idea into your first round of thinking but you risk putting people into analysis paralysis with this attitude, and likewise you are unable to get a general directional sense as a sanity check before fully materializing your idea and polishing it. You can sit on an idea forever if you are too committed to this.

  4. Dave, appreciate your blogs in general, but this one is incomplete truth and hence misleading.
    Final presentation slides to execs & customers, yes be my guest and refine to the fullest.
    But lot of good ideas/strategies have to evolve with early discussions and inputs with related folks. Trying perfecting them early on would be a time waste.

    • As mentioned in another comment reply, like all things in business this is situational. I can think of people who definitely need to hear this advice whereas if you gave it to a perfectionist it would be a disaster and they’d keep re-perfecting an already awesome deliverable. The fact that Kissinger said it to a speechwriter probably tells us more about the speechwriter than it does about Kissinger.

  5. Effective parable, but as stated doesn’t fit many situations. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” is another way of saying what Gaurav already shared. Work in a collaborative setting becomes better via iteration.

    • Agree again. I actually wrote the piece because I was looking at some work where the person really should have made it better before showing it to me. As CEO, I don’t want to be proof-reading and re-structuring your first draft. In the end, this one comes down to [1] who’s the author — perfectionists should avoid this advice and [2] who’s the reviewer — the busier and more senior and less access — the more it really should be your best work. I’m all for collaboration and iteration; it’s really all about appropriateness and the situation. As CEO, I’m thinking: has this guy/gal done the proper homework or not. As someone submitting stuff to your CEO, I’d err on the side of best work. But I get everyone’s point.

  6. When I was a teen, I read Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H, which explains the whole point of “meatball surgery” is to get the injured soldier stabilized, quickly, and get them to the rear-echelon hospitals for recovery. It requires a judgement that not everyone has, but that is invaluable given the sheer numbers of injured soldiers they had to treat in a short amount of time. So in the name of speed and efficiency, they would amputate a leg in order to save lives, because putting 3 hours of surgery into saving it conflicts with the mission. Of course that is life and death, but the concept itself is useful as a teaching tool. For example, I’ve learned you can’t spend too much time perfecting emails for what are considered lower-priority items when there are so many high-priority items that need our attention (mission-focus). At some point you have to say, ‘good enough’ and move on to more important things. Prioritization and time management are the true challenges in an environment where we are constantly bombarded with emails and other requests. In other words, I agree it is situational…and I can see your point is to not make a habit of ‘expecting your supervisor to always clean up your work’.

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