Last night I’m laying on my couch listening to a podcast — how I do, baby! — and I start thumbing through the latest print issue of Harvard Business Review, which is sitting a few feet from me and my trusty pup. My first thought was, “Man, I don’t know why I subscribe to this. Most of the articles are generic.” (True.) And then, just as I was about to pull a plug, I find a tiny gem in the front of the book.
It’s about this thing called revision bias.
I can’t link the actual article — questionable print to digital strategy, baby! — but here’s a summary, including the basic idea:
Three experiments demonstrate a “revision bias” — people prefer experiences and products that have been revised over time, independent of objective improvements over predecessors. This effect holds even when less total effort was devoted to revised versions relative to beta versions.
Oh Gawd. This is such a big deal in the modern white-collar workplace.
I used to work with a lady named Sharon — not even changing names at this point, ha. I wasn’t on her team but knew many who were.
She was the queen of revisions. This team had documents they were working on with a slug like SUCHANDSUCHV63.doc. No joke.
Just revision after revision, tweak after tweak.
All day, all week, all month, all year.
Are all these tweaks making it better?
In some cases, yes. For sure.
In most? I’d argue no.
And that’s what this revision bias research argues too.
It would be interesting to see if there was a numerical limit — like, under eight revisions of something can make it improve, but over eight and there’s no real difference in effectiveness vs. original.
I’m unclear if that research exists, but that’s where I’d consider taking it next.
Issue 1: There are so many revisions because people want control
If you have a bunch of people on your team and you don’t really know what they do because of a hasty hiring process a few years ago to fill essentially a temp need with a FT staffer (all too common), the easiest way to “control” their workflow is to keep making them revise stuff for no real reason.
This is just basic psychology.
Issue 2: Subjectivity of ultimate quality
Some sales doc or landing page can be revised 87 times. Great. Go for it.
All that matters is whether the page helps sell, right?
So you’d be better off taking the four best and doing a A/B/C/D split test or something.
That would bring you closer to unearthing real value than repeatedly tweaking and revising.
Issue 3: We worship the “hands-on” leader
Usually a “hands-on leader” is really just a micromanager, but if you’re constantly revising docs, you’re a boss! A leader! Truly engaged in the work! Reaching down and caring!
In reality none of that is necessarily true, but we allow people to think that way.
Issue 4: It helps us feel busy
Remember: busy is akin to a drug.
Issue 5: Many people think they need to do this to “be a manager”
Assign task work.
Correct it again.
That’s what most people think “a manager” is.
In one way, yes.
In reality, management is about setting priorities and context for your people — and talking to them about how they feel.
Most miss that.
“More” doesn’t always mean better: drugs, alcohol, parking tickets, pit stains, and, well, yes, revisions.
Perfect is the enemy of very good.
Work it to a point then release it into the world.
It’ll be OK.
There will be another project right behind it.
You got this, boo.