We had a party for my mum’s 75th birthday a few weeks ago. I spent about 40 hours working on a “This Is Your Life” slide show for the evening.
I collected and scanned dozens of old photos, dug up video, contacted friends and relatives for anecdotes, picked out her favourite tunes, and painstakingly edited it all together.
My dad arranged for a private room at a nice restaurant. They assured us that they had a flat screen TV that would accommodate the slide show.
I arrived an hour before the party to set up. Sure enough, the TV was there, but the input jacks were inaccessible. They were on the back of the TV, and it was bolted to the wall. I wasn’t until the party was nearly over that we learned that we could access the input jacks through an outlet in the floor.
Luckily, I had brought a back-up projector and screen. But if I hadn’t, all my work would have been foiled by that last little detail — me not knowing that there were jacks right under my feet and the restaurant not having anyone there who could tell me. And that’s not the end of it. The effort that the restaurant expended to have jacks installed on the floor, where they would be accessible but unobtrusive, would have been foiled, because without knowledge of their presence, they were useless. But wait, there’s more! The effort that’s gone into the development of televisions, and then of flat screens, would have been foiled, because without access to the jack, the television might as well have been a picture on the wall. For that evening and purpose, it might as well have never even been invented.
Each of us can think of countless example like this — where tremendous sweat, resources, and good faith have gone into some important endeavour, only to have it all foiled by neglecting that last little detail. The first 99% of effort gets destroyed by the lack of the last 1% of it. For example, I’ve seen more charity events than I can count at which expensive banners get produced but no one has thought about the last step — how they’re going to be rigged. People think they’ll figure it out when they get there. But 40 mile-an-hour winds require a little more thought than that. The work of a branding company, a graphic design firm, and a banner production company are all thwarted because the banner can’t be hung.
We could chock it all up to the fact that accidents happen, but I think that does a disservice to accidents. The last 1% gets overlooked because of a lack of rigour in communication. We play fast and loose with language. Here are a few things we can do to prevent our efforts from being upended:
- Beware the tacit agreement. If someone says something that doesn’t make any sense to you, don’t politely nod, pretend that you understand, and let it go. If you don’t understand what they’re talking about, there’s a damned good chance they don’t either. We’ve all experienced a thousand conversations in which neither of us understood what was just said, but we both just let it go and implicitly hope for the best. Don’t be reticent. Speak up.
- Develop a Pavlovian reaction to the words “I think.” When someone says “I think” it usually means they don’t have a clue, or are guessing, or even hoping. It’s in that space that an important detail gets dropped. My company was doing an expensive commercial shoot last week that required a lot of Velcro. Without it, the main purpose of the shoot would have been undermined. On the final production call, one of our staff said “I think Kris” is taking care of it. I asked, “Does Kris know that?” Sure enough, he didn’t.
- Have multiple conversations about the same thing. If a week has passed since something important was last discussed, have another conversation to verify that you’re all still on the same page or that nothing affecting the project has changed. People forget things, and clarity can degrade into mush after just a few days.
- Fill in the blanks. Repeat back what other people say in conversation and ask them to confirm what they said. Make sure you get a definitive answer. If someone says to you, “The stuff is being FedExed tomorrow,” repeat back, “So the three packages are being FedExed to Steve’s home address for delivery before 10 am tomorrow?”
- Speak like an air-traffic controller. I got my private pilot’s licence about 12 years ago. There is a rigour in the language used by control towers and pilots that we would all do well to adopt. A tower will say, for example, “K193DA, hold short of runway 32.” You, as the pilot, must repeat that: “K193DA holding short of runway 32.” There are no “I thinks” or “uh-huhs” allowed.
- visualise disaster. Talk explicitly with your team about what could go wrong in each area. Imagine worst-case scenarios that could play out in the final push to finish the project. Ask questions like “What will somebody miss for sure?” and “What would leave us dead in the water?”
It’s no surprise that we let our guard down during the last 1% of a project. We’re tired, excited, and thinking ahead to the next thing. But by keeping focused in the home stretch, we can avoid destroying 100% of our effort.
NOW WATCH: Ideas videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.