Perfect Technology Tools: The 90% Rule

Aaron Smith on software technology for small businessesEditor’s Note: Aaron Smith joins us once again, this time explaining how you can take advantage of free or low cost software tools — IF you have reasonable expectations about them. That’s where the 90% rule comes in.

By Aaron Smith

I have seen it happen so many times throughout my career. I’m looking for a piece of software or an online service that solves a business problem. I know it’s out there, and when I find it I bring it to the decision makers for review.

They look at it closely, get excited about the features and possibilities, and then start asking questions. Invariably we get to a point where the managers start envisioning different aspects of the process, or brainstorming different ways it could be used. And then someone asks “Can you view the data in a standard deviation chart and compare it to the three data sets I created last week in Excel?” That’s when my contented smile disappears as I answer “Well, no, but ….”  and the whole room sighs collectively.

All of a sudden my fantastic tool that was going to revolutionize how we work is out the window.

What happened here? Someone decided they needed the “Perfect Tool.”

This is a common problem for businesses trying to adapt to changing technology. For decades, we have been building business tools to address very specific business needs. In the 80’s and 90’s that meant in-house development of specialized applications, defined by traditional software development guidelines and practices.

What this has created is a generation of managers who are used to getting exactly what they want when they define a system requirement. It has narrowed the vision of managers everywhere as they will only accept solutions that completely address every aspect of the business. Unfortunately, unless you have a large budget to pour into development, that will never happen.

The 90% Rule says “If you find a tool that can achieve 90% of the functionality of your ‘Perfect Tool’, you’re 90% of the way to finding a solution.” All too often, managers try to find tools that solve 100% of the problem, something that is often unachievable. Here are a couple of the traps that can lead to this thinking ….


“That’s not what we call it.”

You call them bugs instead of tickets, or tickets instead of tasks, or deadlines instead of milestones … so what? It might take a week or two, but a lot of times it’s easier to change the words you use to describe how you work, than to reprogram an entire application to match your existing terminology, and most of the time that’s not even an option. Just because a tool refers to various aspects of your business differently than you’re accustomed to doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from using it. People are pretty good about adjusting to these kinds of changes (that’s why people make better translators than computers).

“This won’t work for us. Our business is unique.”

Not to rain on your parade, but when it comes down to it, your business isn’t really that different. You offer a product or service, you deal with clients or customers, you charge a fee and create invoices, you pay bills and rent, etc. A lot of businesses sell their ‘process’ as what sets them apart, but that doesn’t have to change just because they change that process or enhance it by making the people executing it more effective.

“That’s so cool! But I want to do this too, and I want it to look like this…”

This is the key to the 90% rule. Being willing to make compromises on small features is the only way to get to 100% (unless, like I said above, you have the development budget to get there). If you need to view your data set vertically instead of horizontally, figure out a way to get what you want outside of the application. It’s usually pretty easy to take data from one app, import it into a spreadsheet, and get what you need. But having the ability to collect, track and manipulate the data in the first place is 90% of the job.

Since most small businesses don’t have the budget to devote to custom development, you are forced to adapt your processes to the tools that are available. Ultimately, no matter what tool you choose, you’re making a process decision for your business. If you choose flexible solutions, are willing to adapt your internal processes to better mesh with the tools, and trust your employees to bridge the gaps, there’s a lot you can achieve with what’s freely available out there.

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About: Aaron Smith is the owner of Mixotic Technology Solutions. Aaron started his own business after seeing so many of the businesses he had worked for struggling with their technology, trying to figure out what tools to use, how to use them, and how to train staff. He believes that companies that don’t explore new technology solutions give up a competitive advantage.


9 Reactions
  1. Adapting to something new is always difficult. We as a society put too much emphasis on “perfect”. We want everything exactly as we want it. Every business is different and everyones “perfect” expectations are different. I agree that you should be willing to look at the positives and work with the negatives to adapt to your needs. Good article.

  2. The lesson applies to all aspects of life. The words of George Eliot apply to the resources we find at hand not just the people with whom we deal. Even if we get 20% of the people doing 80% of the work with 90% of the resources, it still results in a massive shift.

    “The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men.”

    –George Eliot

  3. Well, it’s never easy to adapt to new technologies. But I realized long ago that I won’t be able to find a perfect tool. I don’t know much about software development process, but I have a friend, who is a developer. He says that developing of a piece of software can be endless. Perfect tools do not exist. There are very good tools still. I’ve found one of those and use it successfully for my business management. My tool is Wrike. It works the best for me, as it’s lightweight, quick and supports our email communications.

  4. Remember that tools like the Microsoft Office suite aren’t perfect for your task at hand either.
    It’s in our nature to find a hack or a work-around with most of the software we use, even if we don’t know we’re doing it. We’ve been hacking Office for years and few of us seem to complain.

    Using software that’s open-source, or provided by a small company, gives you room to nag. If enough members of the development team find merit in the features you’re nagging for, you might just see them in the next release. I dare you to get Microsoft to do that!

  5. yeah, all the time we develop service for service, new visual interfaces for old programs and databases, we want to use one program to drive all the word instead of using 10 small programs that can solve 90% of our needs.