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The zen of perfection

July 17, 2018

Is there such a thing as an answer that’s always correct? Since the dawn of Western philosophy, humans have sought to organize the universe into unchanging mathematical certainties: a circle’s area is always πr2. Gravity decreases in proportion to distance. Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.

Like most people in the Western world, I learned this same approach to problem solving in school, where most questions have one – and only one – correct answer. Memorize the correct answers, and you pass the test. Even that principle is itself an immutable formula.

Formulas help ground us. They give us certainty; a sense that the universe functions according to consistent principles.

But there’s no single formula that provides a recipe for success. That’s why some schools of Eastern thought frame the problem differently: instead of seeking permanent, universal answers, they seek to understand and perfect the process.

This point of view resonates much more closely with the work we do at Evo. In many situations, a universal perfect answer does not exist. In other words, perfection is not a state to be achieved, but an ongoing, ever-adapting process to be performed.

“I am not worried about competition: we can innovate faster than they can copy.”

— Ray Kroc, McDonalds

Perfection is a balance

In business, the “perfect price” or “perfect allocation” is not a single formula, but a continually adjusted balance between customers’ desires, capital investments, competitor behavior, and many other interrelated factors.

This means a perfect price or allocation is not a destination, but a process. By quickly identifying local optimal solutions, learning from feedback, and rapidly adapting to changing circumstances, we’re able to achieve a state of “perfection in motion,” which holds steady even as factors shift.

And that’s where perfection lies—not in any formula, but in the ongoing process of improvement through learning, innovation, and iteration.

The process of success

Of course, the most successful businesses have a deep understanding of this notion and have mastered its applications. What differentiates companies, as well as human beings, is the ability to rapidly adapt to fast changing environmental conditions. And that requires the following traits:

1) A clear definition of meaningful outcomes
Just as no single KPI is meaningful for every company, no single outcome is always synonymous with success. One quarter it may mean widening profit margins, while at another time lowering prices in response to competitor promotions may be desirable. The zen of perfection demands ongoing redefinition of ideal targets.

2) A clear approach to measurement
Constant changes in approach require constant feedback from tracking tools. Once you’ve defined an ideal outcome for a given time and location, it’s necessary to track progress, generate reports, and verify whether you’re on track – and where you need to make adjustments.

3) A willingness to pay the price of learning and adjustment
Adaptation is always painful. It hurts to find out you’ve been doing something wrong – and it hurts even more to find out you can’t keep doing something that’s made you successful, because circumstances have changed. The zen of perfection requires humility – an acceptance that change is integral to success.

“If we could eliminate all our ego barriers and emotional reactions to mistakes, we’d learn so much faster.”

—Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Associates

Far from being a “soft” skill, the zen of perfection is a rigorous discipline – and not everyone is capable of taking it on. Success in business requires a willingness to innovate and thrive in the midst of highly ambiguous circumstances.

For those who learn to be comfortable with this ambiguity, and to treat perfection as a process rather than a state, the rewards are all but unlimited.

About the author

Fabrizio Fantini is the brain behind Evo. His 2009 PhD in Applied Mathematics, proving how simple algorithms can outperform even the most expensive commercial airline pricing software, is the basis for the core scientific research behind our solutions. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and has previously worked for 10 years at McKinsey & Company.

He is thrilled to help clients create value and loves creating powerful but simple to use solutions. His ideal software has no user manual but enables users to stand on the shoulders of giants.

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