Beyond ‘good’: setting and working towards a more ambitious baseline

Beyond ‘good’: setting and working towards a more ambitious baseline

External and internal benchmarks often differ. Solutions Analyst Mike Hicks, Principal Solutions Architect at Cisco ThousandEyes, explores how a business’s benchmark of ‘good’ can limit innovation and competitiveness.

Solutions Analyst Mike Hicks, Principal Solutions Architect at Cisco ThousandEyes

Network and application teams that fear they fall short of industry benchmarks for performance, resiliency, stability, usage or other metrics will be familiar with a common corrective action: drawing a line in the sand, establishing ‘what good looks like’ and then working to get there.

Whether this definition of ‘good’ is enough to raise a team or organisation’s output up to where it needs to be to properly succeed in today’s economic environment is a hot topic.

The business market is hyper-competitive. Market leaders haven’t gotten where they are by striving to meet basic measures of performance or success. They’re there because they set the standard for others to live up to.

In that way, being ‘good’ does not imply being ‘best-in-class’. That’s been the case for over 100 years: in scenario planning models like ‘good, better, best’, the ‘good’ option is the least ambitious of the three. Defining what ‘good’ looks like might be a first step to improvement, but it’s a starting point, not an end state.

That’s the challenge for any team or organisation that is trying to set themselves up on a trajectory of improvement and growth. It’s not enough to be ‘good’ anymore. There’s a need to be better than ‘good’. Only by continuously getting better, can organisations and teams become the ‘best’ in their respective fields.

A new standard needs to be set that can evolve with changing business and economic conditions and that standard needs to be underpinned by end-to-end visibility.

Reaching for ‘good’

Defining what ‘good’ looks like is an important first step on the journey, but teams and organisations are likely to encounter common obstacles that prevent even ‘good’ from being achieved.

Specifically, organisations and teams are susceptible to missing the mark on ‘good’ if they lean too heavily on external benchmarks or SLAs as accepted definitions of what ‘good’ looks like, or if they define ‘good’ themselves without having data to support their decision-making. It’s worth unpacking both in a bit more detail.

First, there are common industry benchmarks around what is considered to be ‘good’ – page loads in under two seconds, latency or ping times within a certain number of milliseconds, no greater than 1% packet loss on a circuit. The list goes on. Some of these were set many years ago, have not evolved since and have lost currency. They’re also ‘someone else’s’ benchmarks and won’t fit every set of circumstances.

SLAs – Service Level Agreements – pose much the same problem. They are often set very low to make breaching them difficult and would not match up with an organisation’s own internal definition of what constituted ‘good’ availability or service. For that reason, their utility as a model for setting a ‘good’ internal baseline is fairly limited.

Second, where organisations try to set their own baseline instead of using someone else’s, but where they do not have data and visibility to support the internal discussion and decision-making, they risk setting ‘good’ too low.

Definitions of ‘good’ can end up becoming watered down by what is internally perceived as realistic and achievable, within a set of known constraints – financial, time, cultural and so on. While realism is an important input into any discussion, there has to be awareness of how it can work against innovation.

The temptation to under-promise and over-deliver may produce a version of ‘good’ that falls short of internal capabilities, building in a margin for error or disappointment. It may also lead to passive commitments like ‘best effort’ or ‘up to’, which are not objectively ‘good’ standards to aspire to.

A visible solution

The common denominator among organisations and teams that set too low a bar for ‘what good looks like’ is a lack of visibility into their operations.

Similarly, organisations that display a lack of vision to strive for continuous improvement – to become ‘better’ or the ‘best’ – may also be suffering from a lack of visibility. Executives may not be confident to set higher standards if they’re unsure these standards are achievable.

Put simply: You need to know exactly what you’re working with to know where you can improve. That visibility will also help you measure the relative success of uplift measures and provide rolling feedback on how you can constantly improve and keep raising the bar.

Think of it in an e-commerce context. With constant visibility, teams and organisations can understand how often they can push new features or changes and the impact this has on customer behaviour. When the customer experience improves, they sell more and that creates revenue and competitive advantage.

Being ‘good’ is no longer good enough. Visibility is the gateway to continuous improvement and ultimately to becoming best-in-class.

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