When you strive for perfection

I grew up in a house where things were done a certain way. Nothing was really out of place, mess wasn’t tolerated and doing things to just barely meet the goal wasn’t good enough. I learned at a very young age that being organized and exacting was the way to be. That overachieving was the only way to be. I ended up translating this into: everything has to be perfect.

This is not an indictment of my parents. I also learned an amazing work ethic, how to organize just about anything from a sock drawer to a multi-million dollar IT project, and how to be self-sufficient.

Early in my career, striving for perfection was the ultimate goal for me. I worked for bosses that also believed in getting things perfect before rolling them out to others. They would rather spend years on getting it right than rolling it out quicker with room for improvement. Collecting feedback was not appropriate; we needed to show that we were experts and could do things the right way, the first time.

It took me years to realize that perfection was indeed the enemy of good — an old cliche but one that rings true. In a world of being agile, there isn’t time for perfection. In a world of rampant stress and anxiety, there is no capacity for perfection. In a world of changing technology and circumstances, there simply isn’t room to be perfect.

I once gave a talk to a group of Knowledge Management professionals. I talked about my realization that “best practices” may be too hard to strive for. That “good” is good enough and we should define what “good” means to us in our own contexts. Several people stood up and chastised me for such a notion. I had just annihilated their entire philosophy of success. To be successful, you had to be perfect.

Then, I had a younger generation of participants way in the back of the room approach me afterwards thanking me for dispelling the notion that everything had to be perfect. That trying out new things and iterating was what they believed we should be doing in business to move faster and have more relevance.

We should all strive for quality, but perfection will drive a person crazy. Here are five things I do to be successful without striving for perfection.

  1. Define “good”. What does “good” look like? This is a question of quality. I have put many proposals in front of executives that provide good-better-best options to choose from. Nine times out of ten, the good option is selected. Today, we can’t afford to take the time or maybe even spend the money for “best” or “perfect”. But, this depends on your culture and industry.
  2. Time box. My favorite corporate bingo phrase. If you time box your efforts, that is put a quick end date to your efforts, like 60 or 90 days (or less), you can only get done a certain number of activities that matter most. This action forces you to focus on good enough instead of perfect. I find this very effective to push good ideas out quickly. There is always room to continuously improve.
  3. Carve out places for feedback. If you move quick and focus on good enough, you must provide time and places for feedback collection. Back to our commitment to quality, getting feedback to make changes is critical to ensuring we meet that commitment. There is nothing more useful than asking the end user or customer to tell you what they think of your product, process or service.
  4. Pitch your approach. To avoid perfectionism, your approach may include getting something out quickly or completing 80% of a new process. Work with your sponsor/manager on why moving quicker to roll something out, collect feedback and iterate proves to be a more successful approach than a long timeframe for the perfect process.
  5. Breathe or find a mantra. You may be asking yourself what this has to do with business. Perfectionism is a not-so-distant cousin to anxiety. I speak from experience. There are usually deep seeded reasons behind why we must be perfect. Take a breath, recite a mantra, meditate…whatever works for you, and, honestly, one minute of deep breathing can go a long way. This is something I have learned to do. Ask yourself: Why must I be perfect? What will happen if I am not? Do I really think I will lose my job? Of course not. I suppose if that does happen, then ask yourself if this organization was right for you.

Some may argue achieving perfection should always be the goal, and in certain arenas, that may be true. Anything involving safety, health or money management needs to be pretty perfect. So, building a new car, constructing the next airplane or a even managing someone else’s money, anything less than perfect won’t do.

As a knowledge worker, we manage and participate in many projects that help us with efficiency, customer service and competitive advantages. In these areas, defining good and taking a quicker, more iterative approach will strengthen our efforts.

As a manager, think about how striving for perfection may affect your employees’ engagement levels and stress. Trying to please a boss that only wants perfection is a tough expectation to meet. Have you ever worked for someone like this? Reflect and remember how you felt in that relationship. I imagine those bosses may have lost a few good team members along the way.

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