Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Principle of the Speckled Ax

Possibly because I was driving him to the ragged edge of insanity over some minor aspect of a project, my father once told me the story of the speckled ax.

As he told it, a father and a son were preparing to cut wood by sharpening the ax. This was back in the days when axes were most easily sharpened by holding them against a spinning grindstone. The grindstone was turned by a hand-crank or, sometimes a foot pedal or plate like a potter's wheel.

The son insisted that the ax had to be thoroughly polished, so that there would be no specks of rust left.

The father pointed out that, as long as the edge of the ax was sharp and clean, a few spots of rust elsewhere wouldn't matter.

The son kept insisting, though, and the father finally agreed: on the condition that the son turn the grindstone while the father held the ax.

And so the father held the ax against the grindstone as the son turned the crank. Time went on. The edge of the ax was sharp and clean, but some specks of rust remained on the sides. More time went on as the father methodically polished one speck after another from the blade.

Finally, drenched with sweat, the son said, "Dad, I think a speckled ax is okay."

The point of this is that "The best is the enemy of the good" (Voltaire, in the Dictionaire Philosophique, 1764). It's fine to want everything to be as good as it can be right away, but it's unrealistic to expect that to happen.

I had an opportunity to apply this philosophy today. My not-ready-for-prime-time website, Minnesota for Web-Wise Travelers, has cosmetic problems as well presenting a few technical and organizational challenges.

The page header just doesn't look right. Not by my standards, at least. I spent just over an hour on it today before deciding that getting the site up and running before summer is half-over was more important than aesthetic values.

So, it's goodbye to Brian the Art Director and hello to Mr. Gill the site architect.

Being able to distinguish between what would be nice to achieve and what is vital to a project can determine whether a project finishes on time and budget: and sometimes whether it gets finished at all.

I've worked for bosses who had a hard time distinguishing between the vital and the preferable. Now that I'm the boss, it's a little more apparent how easy it is to get distracted by a side issue.

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