Jimi Smoot Entrepreneur / Software Engineer

10% is what makes a world class performer

What’s the difference between mediocre results and exceptional results? While working on the Vesper product lifestyle video, answering this question took me back to running sprints in college.

Playing lacrosse in college, we spent the last 20 minutes of practices doing sprints. This was exceptionally difficult because lacrosse involves quite a bit of running, so by the end of practice everyone on the team was exhausted . Since we were so tired, we usually sprinted hard the first 90% or so of the field and coasted the last 10%.

After a few practices, our coach caught on and changed his policy. Moving forward, every practice required 10 perfect sprints. Perfect meaning nobody could let up until they were past the finish line. His rationale was that the difference between champions and everyone else is that champions don’t let up in the last 10%; they push through to the end. Coach’s new perfect policy meant that if anyone on the team decided to let up, we had to restart the entire set of 10 sprints from the beginning.

Our first time, practice ran past sunset and we must have run 35 sprints. We were all sore for a week but the message was received: 90% complete isn’t good enough.

It’s funny how the subconscious can take a lesson like this and resurface at the right time. A few weeks into the Vesper video project, I had an epiphany struggling through hiring design talent.

Want to be world class? Focus on the last 10%

I realized, like my coach did, what separates the world class performers is the last 10% of any project.

If you look around, you’ll notice the 10% concept holds true with products or services you come across in your daily life. The ones that clearly show attention to detail are recognized as exceptional, others we think of as mediocre.

For example, think about a Kia Forte, which we can agree is a mediocre car. The engineering is good, but not phenomenal. The seats are comfortable enough. Music plays from the radio. It gets you from point A to point B. Now imagine taking a seat in an Aston Martin. When you drive an expensive luxury sedan like a DB10, the last 10% of the car was given the utmost attention: the way the knobs feel when you click them, the scent of leather, the aesthetics of the gas gauge, the stitching on the steering wheel. All these tiny details, and more, are crucial to producing the best possible product. And that’s the reason an Aston Martin is world class.

Another great example of this is Apple. Apple does a beautiful job maximizing the last 10% their products. The way an iPhone feels when you take it out of the box, the way each piece in the box has its own home, the feel and weight of the phone in your hand, the brilliance of the screen. Those are the tiny details Apple perfects in the last 10% of creating an iPhone before boxing it up and shipping it to us.

The first 90% of creating an iPhone is simple: Can it make phone calls? Send text messages? Receive emails? Resolving those details is straightforward and doesn’t set the iPhone apart from any other smartphone in the world. Those are the 90% pieces. The other 10% separates Apple from its competitors, and have made them into the most valuable company (or the former most valuable company) in the world.

It’s not about cost, it’s about attitude

People who understand this last 10% concept are relatively rare, but they aren’t always the most expensive. When I started looking for top to help with Vesper’s marketing assets, I thought cost would be a good barometer. With the Efficient Market Hypothesis in mind, I thought, if someone demanded a higher rate they had a high probability of being amazing. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to charge that much and have consistent work.

This cost bias was disproved quickly when I found there are professionals who charge large amounts of money and produce mediocre results – but I won’t name names. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve come across excellent vendors who are inexpensive. The common denominator with top performers is their love for the work.

When talking to some of the best software engineers I know, I found they just happen to get paid for writing code. If they weren’t getting paid, they would still be building their own projects or contributing to open source.

I’ve even taken to screening for this attitude in interviews with recruits or vendors. I ask something like why are you doing what you do? Why not become a lawyer, doctor or something?. The ones who are just in it for the money are usually apparent.

This attitude is easy to adopt for your organization

If your company provides timeline estimates for a project, take the amount of time you think you completing the project will take and add 20% extra. Then spend your extra time doing nothing but refining.

If you produce creative work, once reach a point where you feel like the project is complete, scrap it and start fresh. Don’t have the time? Make time.

If your company is service based, make sure the way you communicate with customers reflects how you feel about them. Thank customers for their business when you talk to them and always find a way to add value.

More than anything, strive to be a champion! If you want to build a world class product or provide an industry leading service, you have to continually ask yourself, what other ways can I maximize the last 10% for my clients?

What other ways have you found that maximize the last 10% for your clients?

Tags: work and performance