The Difference Between Good and Great


As I write this, the last piece of work on the house renovations that we’ve been doing is getting done – our front door is being painted.

Unsurprisingly, the renovations have taken MUCH longer than we ever would have guessed.  They’ve been close to on budget, but we’ve had work being done for about 15 months now.

The weird part is this: 98% of the work was done 7.5 months ago – it’s taken us half of the time to get the last 2% done.

That last 2% is the difference between good and great.

We did a lot of work: we repainted the whole house: inside, outside & roof. Put in new floors in the living room & kitchen. Recarpeted four other rooms. Refurbished the kitchen. Replaced the fans and put in a bunch of new lights. Put in new sinks in the master bathroom. Did a bunch of repair, structural and concrete work outside to fix a big leak.  I think that’s about everything….

Even though it is more expensive, we hired people to do the majority of the work.  In my younger days, I was a house painter for one summer.  So it’s not as though I can’t paint.

But that summer, I learned about that last 2%.  I can do this type of painting:



Most anyone can.  That’s not the problem.

The problem is this:



That’s the 2% that took half the time.

The problem with the stairs is that they touched on everyone’s work, but no one had the skill to finish that part of the job.  The guy that did the floor went up to the edge of the stairs and stopped.  The inside painters did everything inside, except the stairs. One carpenter did the railings for us. Then we had to get another carpenter in to do the railings right.

Eventually, the woodwork was done.

That took ages – but the really hard part was staining the stairs.  Take a close look at that picture – there are at least seven different types of wood coming together at that corner of the stairs.  Seven!  And, they’re all different.

The big reason it took us seven months to get this finished was because we couldn’t find a painter that was willing to do that job.  Getting seven different types of wood to look roughly the same is diabolically hard.

So, while anyone could paint the walls (even me!), it turns out that almost no one could finish the stairs.

One of alarming things that has come out of the research that Nilofer Merchant and I have done for our book is that a huge percentage of firms in our survey don’t have any source of competitive advantage that they can identify.  They’re the firms that just paint big, wide, open walls.

These firms don’t perform very well.

The ones that are winning are the ones that do something distinctive.  The ones that are winning big are the ones that can do something distinctive on diabolically hard jobs.  They’re the firms that can paint the corners with seven different types of wood.

The payoff to being able to do that last 2% is enormous.  That’s the difference between good, and great.

When we talk about innovation strategy, the smart thing to do is to find the last 2% in your field, and get really good at doing that.

When he finishes the front door today, I’ll gladly pay Garry for this last bit of work.  The reason I’ve been willing to get people in is that I’ve known all along that I couldn’t do the last 2% (well, to be honest, about the last 20%…). I could have done ok work, but not great work.

Now that it’s all done, we can all relax a bit.



Wallace is better than anyone else at that 2% hardest part of sleeping all the time.

What will your 2% be?

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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6 thoughts on “The Difference Between Good and Great

  1. Hi Tim, Nicely done, as usual. It is important to note that many would-be imnnovators don’t have the 2% figured when they conceive of their latest great idea. Should they pursue an idea where they do, perhaps even a lesser one, instead of one where they don’t? No simple, one size fits all answer, but I am sure you can appreciate the tension.

    Best regards,


  2. Excellent read Tim, I even notice this in completing own deliverables at work. Lot of effort and sleepless night in getting that 95-98% of work done but slacks off in finishing off that last 2-5%

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