How to Avoid Gold-plating Tendencies

My Beautiful Woodpile!

Stacking firewood this weekend brought out a bit of the craftsmen in me. Stability was somewhat important, of course. We didn’t want it to topple over. Finishing was most important. Beauty and consistency were nowhere on the list. Nonetheless, I faced ample temptation to build a fabulous wood pile!

It must be human nature – pride in workmanship, a little aesthetic compulsion, the intrinsic reward of learning how to do something better, finding a challenge to combat the tedium, … Who hasn’t done a better job than necessary on some task at some point? And who hasn’t been proud of delivering a better than expected result? Don’t we applaud excellence at every turn?

Well, yes, until we decide it is eroding profits! Companies everywhere struggle with gold-plating tendencies – producing quality and features the exceed the requirements. Whether your employees are: 

  • Polishing high end lenses, like one of my clients
  • Engineering complex systems, like another
  • Writing something, as I am doing right now, or
  • Developing software products, which I’ve done and helped others improve many times since

Regardless of the situation, most employees are naturally inclined to do more than is necessary in some aspect of their job. This is especially true when doing things they love to do! Furthermore, any employee who hasn’t had his head in the sand knows that it is best to under promise and over deliver.

I wasn’t stacking wood alone. I had the opportunity to compare the height of my part of the woodpile to my husband’s section any time I chose. A bit of competitiveness and a simple desire to do my fair share of the work, also common elements of human nature, kept my craftsmanship in check. Visual feedback, like that offered by our side-by-side woodpiles, can’t be beat as an antidote for gold-plating. However, visual feedback isn’t always available or sufficient. Nonetheless, people need to know, and want to know, how well they are doing. That’s also human nature.

There is a fine line between encouraging excellence and discouraging gold-plating. Thus, to minimize gold-plating tendencies:

  • Clarify objectives and priorities.
  • Make “how well” a consideration discussed just as often as who, what, when, and how.
  • Talk about ways to over deliver that aren’t costly and short-cuts that aren’t bad.
  • Be sure people understand the cost of gold-plating in terms of time, schedules, dollars, and lost opportunity.
  • Openly acknowledge, and honor, the temptation to make things awesome.
  • Work together to identify checks and balances to combat gold-plating.
  • Provide regular feedback so people know where they stand and when they are slipping into natural, but costly, tendencies.

And remember, this isn’t about personality. It is all about awareness, techniques, and habits. Even extreme perfectionists can learn to measure their success by different criteria.

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