The 95% Barrier
Psychological Ownership

The 95% Barrier

The real reason why individuals and teams have difficulty with actually finishing work.

Joao Gamas profile image
Mar 24, 2020 • 6 min read

How often do we see this in our teams: a lot of work started and very few finished. I mean, there is obviously more pleasure in starting new projects than in finishing them. But, why is that? What is the psychological issue that prevents so many people from finishing things, and instead makes them focus on starting new tasks?

As an agile consultant and kanban professional, this seems to be one of the most common issues I face. But it wasn’t until I decided to create my own software product that I really understood the psychological factors behind it. I lived it (some tasks were multiple times harder to finish than others), I fought it (talking about it in depth with my partner/therapist), I succumbed to it (often feeling ashamed as to how I kept falling into the same trap), and I accepted it (eventually understanding my own subconscious reasons). I would like to share with you what I have learned.

It all starts when we are kids, learning about the world and interacting with other kids and our own parents. As a child we have boundless creativity - and it makes sense, since we are not attached to any thing yet. When we are young, we have not yet invested much effort to produce anything - so there is no emotional attachment to a particular result. 

When we are young, we have not yet invested much effort to produce anything - so there is no emotional attachment to a particular result.

As professionals, we have spent years of our lives honing a specific skill. It was that unique skill that got us the job in the first place, and in order to get that job we had to prove that our skill was greater than the rest. With each day, we create our emotional castle around our ability to produce a result. With our professional careers in the line, we become emotionally attached to the outcomes we are supposed to deliver.

As adults, we look at kids and think “for them everything is play time”. There is a freedom in producing a piece of art and not caring if it is the best in the class. That piece of art does not define you, it is just something you did in art class - and you are even proud you could do it in that short time.

At work, there is much more on the line. Coworkers and bosses have memory, and what you do today affects not just today’s results but also how you will be viewed in future occasions. Now, with something to lose, our position is very different. The “skilled” you are meant to be, the more anxiety producing specific results becomes.

“What if that is not what the client wants?”

You see, true productivity is blocked by fear - our inner voice afraid of being wrong, ridiculed, or pointed at as an example. We have worked hard to be were we are, and deep down we are still proving to ourselves that we truly deserve it.

So what really keeps us from finishing the most important work? Well, let’s dissect the story.

As you take on a new project, you get the first explanation of what is to be done. The client (client here being external, internal, a partner or even oneself) explains what is the desired outcome. At that moment or creative mind is able to visualize multiple possible outcomes, and we immediately start thinking of unique features that would make this a success. We are full of hope and excited to start.

The very beginning can be challenging, since we have to decide which direction to go. We research the possible options and choose a winer. Without knowing, we have made our first commitment to the result. From now on, all decisions will pile on top all the way to the end.

Then comes the best part - doing the work we have been trained to do. This is the behind the scenes work, the “grunt” work. This part usually comes without any judgement or criticism, as we “do our work”. These are the days we finish feeling like we got stuff done, since we are trusted to know what the right decisions are. After all, this is what we trained so hard for.

The 80/20 rule tells us that 80% of the work is done with 20% of the effort. That is usually because the last 20% is often what differentiates a good solution from a great one. And we can get 80% of most projects done mostly by getting the basic stuff done. But then it comes time to put the differentiating factor on it - your “signature” on the work. 

The reality is that results usually don't quite match the hope you initially had.

You are now at the merci of the reaction of the client, and the focus will be on what is missing. The aspects you failed on, instead of the accomplishments achieved. Doubt takes over, and with it hesitation. It is that much harder to fight for a client when you are not confident about what you are offering to begin with.

That’s when the inner critic voice cries out and the subconscious fear kicks in. This is the time you are about to to be judged and potentially criticized, just like when you were growing up. Your parent/teacher/older sister voice in the back of your mind eats away your confidence. Is the result really up to par with what I am supposed to deliver?

How can you really make yourself so vulnerable as to open yourself to criticism again?

So what do we tend to do? We find “work that still needs done”. The last touch ups stretches on, since deep down you know that while you “are not done yet” the criticism can be taken constructively. But once you cross the 5% the criticism is no longer constructive, but it is taken personally instead.

We have difficulty delivering because we fear the personal judgment that comes with completion.

So what can we do about it?

Courage, it turns out, comes in two varieties: either one in not emotionally attached to the outcome (and thus has nothing to lose), or one is so secure that the task does not seem scary. So either we don’t care or we are confident. 

The question then is: how can we become more confident of our results, so that we can deliver things that are not “100%?

This is the core of the concept of psychological safety. Creating a space where it is safe to fail. Safe to deliver a prototype and ask for feedback. Safe to be able to say “I was wrong” and be looked at as an even better professional.

The solution is simple in theory, but difficult in practice. We must take away the judgement from delivery. If there is no judgement, there is no fear of criticism.

In practice, this is done with a combination of factors. These factors depend on the cultural environment where the deliveries take place, so each workplace is different than the other. For me, these are the factors that have worked:

  1. Validate with a prototype. A prototype could be as simple as a verbal explanation, and it should ensure that foundational issues are agreed on.
  2. Keep an experimental mindset. Think of it as a puzzle that you are collaborating on, and each time there is agreement between you and the client another piece is in. 
  3. Deliver a version at key decision points. This allows you to validate the decisions, and share the responsibility for them.
  4. Make deliveries functionally concrete. Don’t count on the client’s imagination, instead give them something specific to decide on (even if parts of it are prototype).
  5. Let the client decide when it’s done. Instead of proclaiming it is what the client wanted, let them seal the deal.

Psychological Safety
Customer Focus
Definition of Done
6 minute read
Revision #3
1333 Words
Created on Mar 22, 2020 13:32,
last edited on Mar 24, 2020 08:28