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Never Good Enough

Shana Friedman

I frame this dilemma as “the people vs. the product”

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

J

ust this week, at a simchah, I met someone who asked the usual question: “How do you do this every week? There’s so much in that magazine, how do you make it all happen?”

My answer: “We have a great team. And what makes them great is that they’re not the ‘good enough’ types.”

Do you know those “perfect” types of hair stylists? The type who spend forever on the haircut, then as you finally pack up to leave say “just one second, sit back down, there’s a tiny strand I just noticed and need to fix…”

So that’s the great thing and the challenging thing about our staff. They really, really want the magazine to be perfect. (If we had no deadlines, it would be an even better thing.)

But. Even within the confines imposed by our weekly deadlines, there is always a tension between the urge to make it perfect and the toll that takes on the staff. I frame this dilemma as “the people vs. the product.”

This is not a once-yearly marathon that you can spend months training for and months recovering from. This product is produced 50 weeks a year by human beings — people who have to wake up the next morning and start all over again.

We operate this magazine with the assumption that our readership is intelligent and discerning and has a nose for quality. At the same time, not all of them will appreciate the extra graphic touches or additional round of editing. Those twin considerations result in a weekly dilemma: Do we make the staff stay here an extra two hours on a closing day so the graphics and commas are all absolutely perfect or just say “good enough” and go home?

The dilemma actually begins a lot earlier in the process. Imagine that a great idea for a story comes in. The most expedient way to cover it is to call the source, ask him or her some pointed questions, and type up a quick Q & A. And sometimes that really does serve the story best. But lots of times, it’s much better to spend the time talking in person, put in the hard work of building a strong narrative, do the additional research and interviews that will bring the story to life. As much as we aim for the best route, when do we say “go with the Q & A, the main thing is to get the story”?

The same goes for the design. If option one is pretty close to what we envisioned, and option two is just about there, and option three is really nice, do we push our graphics staff to create option four?

Or consider: a writer submits a feature. There’s always the assumption that he or she will be willing to do a second draft (time permitting). So an editor marks it up, puts in comments and suggestions and some criticism, and sends it back to the writer for a second draft. But after that second draft comes in, and it’s not yet Pulitzer worthy, do we ask for a third? Or a fourth? How much can you expect a writer to do without becoming demoralized and resentful?

 

Confession: a lot of us at Mishpacha are perfectionists. In an ideal world, we’d push for that fourth draft, agonize over yet another round of changes, or spend a few more hours looking for that perfect photo. But a smart manager has to learn that in just about every process, there is a point of diminishing returns — a certain stage where the output no longer justifies the effort.

I remember a writer who sent in at least eight “final” versions of her piece over the course of two days. At first I admired her attention to detail. Then I started getting wary. By the time the eighth version arrived, I just felt bad for anyone who lives in her home. A dedicated writer can fiddle and tweak their piece forever. The tenth version might really be a lot better than the ninth, but the eleventh version won’t be appreciably better than the tenth. And if you’re the one demanding this work of others, you have to stop at some point and put your people before your product. You have to say, “This is great, even if some more sweat could make it better.”

The reason for that isn’t economics, or smart management technique. It’s because a product that’s meant to convey our deepest values has to be produced in a way that’s true to those values. Put a different way, the people who oversee the entire operation aren’t just putting out a magazine. They are also managing a diverse staff. In the ultimate accounting, they’ll be held responsible for both of those areas of responsibility: the product and the people. So while they expect, encourage, and foster quality work, they never want to become slave drivers, blind to the dedicated people who put so much effort and heart into this weekly enterprise.

Readers have told us that between the lines of the magazine, they can sense the camaraderie, respect, and cooperation of the staff that works together to put it out. It’s an intangible that benefits both sides of the equation. So as much as we aim for perfect, and as hard as we push to achieve it, sometimes the best investment in a quality product is saying, “You did great, everyone, next week we’ll do even better — and now it’s time to go home.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 752)

 

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