It was the perfect report.
My best work to date.
I’d poured hours into it, days, weeks even. But it was long.
5,000 words long.
And that wasn’t a good thing!
But there was so much I needed to say.
I needed to ensure no-one could rebuff this report. I wanted every possible angle covered. My findings were foolproof. My recommendations rock solid.
I’d put so much effort into this this report it had almost become an embodiment of me. My personal value was tied up in it!
It was a small slice of me. A pound of flesh.
But guess what?
NO-ONE READ IT!
Why trying to be perfect is the fastest way to damage your business and career
Let’s start with a dictionary definition of what Perfect is:
But this description falls short.
Here’s what I believe it should say:
as good as it is possible to be within the defined constraints.
What do I mean by that?
I’m borrowing from project management basics here.
A project is delivered within a set of constraints. Depending upon which project management methodology you follow, there can be up to 6. The 4 most common (which make up what is known as the Project Management Triangle, or the Triangle of Constraints) are:
If we take the context of my consulting report, it needed to be:
- Completed on TIME (or within a reasonable expected period of time if no defined deadline)
- Completed within the time I had allocated to write it (even if your consulting business consists only of you, or even if you’re employed, your time isn’t free – it has a COST associated!)
- About the specific topic it was supposed to be about (as I said, it was a long report – could it be that I strayed into subject areas that I need not have? Did I stray outside of SCOPE)
- Within defined or expected QUALITY. I wrote a 5,000 word report. Was my client expecting a 5,000 word report or only 2,000? Maybe all my previous reports had set an unspoken precedent of being only 5 pages long, not 30. Maybe they weren’t even expecting a report at all, but instead a PowerPoint presentation!
So, my report wasn’t ‘Perfect’ then?
How dare you! How very dare you!
Well, it was perfect from the perspective that it was a high ‘quality’ report.
To borrow from the dictionary definition, it was:
Yet despite this, it wasn’t read by many people. It went to about 30 people and was read by maybe 3.
So it can’t really have been ‘perfect’ then!
If everyone had read it, and provided some level of feedback – good or bad, it would have been engaging.
I’d love for it to have been more engaging. In fact, engaging is more valuable to me than perfect!
Maybe it was engaging for the 3 people who read it. But for the remainder it was daunting.
It was too much.
It was difficult for them to find the time – the motivation – to read such a heavy report.
By that definition, it was anything but perfect!
And there-in lies the problem.
You see, I believe we all have a bias out of: Time, Scope, and Quality.
Less so on Cost as most people don’t consider themselves a cost.
There’s maybe a few outliers who are able to balance all 3, but I think they’re rare.
My bias is towards quality. That makes me a bit of a perfectionist.
It means that if I don’t keep myself in check, I can end up being late!
I tell myself that it’s ok to be late because my work will be of such high-quality that people will be so wowed by it and so they’ll forget it’s late.
But if it’s late, they’re not wowed.
In fact, they’re often annoyed. I know it even if they don’t say so.
When it’s late it means I’ve let the client down. I’ve let myself down. And I’ve damaged trust, which is a fragile thing.
An old boss used to say that I was an adrenaline junky! I’d only get stuff done when I was affected by the ground rush.
This is a coping mechanism. I can be so focused on something being perfect that I obsess over it. I tie too much personal value in my outputs. If I don’t give myself enough time to obsess over it, I have to get it done.
There’s no time to make it perfect.
When I’m working on my own, the skydiver approach of leaving things until the last minute is fine, if a little scary at times.
But when you’re in a team it doesn’t make for a good team player!
I take comfort in the knowledge that it’s not just me
I was running a workshop today with a consulting client when I came across the same problem.
A project had taken many years to complete. There were many valid reasons for this. But the developer was discussing with me the importance of the quality of his work. Whilst he may have taken longer than expected, in his view his outputs were of high quality.
He believed his work was always high quality.
The trouble was, by the time the project delivered, the solution was no longer valid.
Things had moved on.
It was out of date.
A waste of time and money.
That ship had sailed.
The project, then, was most certainly not perfect!
What to do if you suffer from perfectionism?
The first thing to do is accept that you’re a perfectionist.
Recognise it. See the signs.
The second thing to do is to learn to be, ‘Good enough’.
This is your new mantra.
Repeat after me: From now on I will only ever be Good Enough.
Because there’s no value in perfect.
Your stuff must only be good enough.
Give yourself permission to only be good enough.
Because for everyone around you, your ‘good enough’ is so much better than your ‘perfect’.
Don’t believe ‘good enough’ is better? Let’s look at some science
In a study of Highly Automated Vehicles (HAV’s) they compared road fatalities over time. With something as contentious, and risky, as automated vehicles, you’d think they’d want to be very sure that they were safe.
That they’d make sure that the vehicles were ‘perfect’.
Well, not so it turns out.
The findings of the study showed:
- In the short term, more lives are cumulatively saved under a more permissive policy (improve by 10% over the average human driver) than stricter policies requiring greater safety advancements (Improve by 75% or Improve by 90%) in nearly all conditions, and those savings can be significant — hundreds of thousands of lives.
- In the long term, more lives are cumulatively saved under an 10% improvement policy than either 75% improvement or 90% improvement policy under all combinations of conditions we explored. In many cases, those savings can be more than half a million lives.
- There is good reason to believe that reaching significant safety improvements may take a long time and may be difficult prior to deployment. Therefore, the number of lives lost while waiting for significant improvements prior to deployment may be large.
What about other industries?
Think about how software companies do things.
They release products that are less than perfect, then they release ‘patches’ to fix the issues in their products.
They work on the concept of ‘fail and fail fast’ so that they don’t miss the market opportunity.
If they waited until their product was perfect, it’s likely that someone else will get there first.
Hopefully you now realise that your view of perfect just isn’t Good Enough.
As a reminder, good enough means:
- Delivered on time
- Focused only on what it needs to be
- With a level quality the recipient expects
That, by my definition, is what PERFECT is!
I continue to be a recovering perfectionist.
Perhaps there’s some Freudian explanation based on a childhood experience. Who cares. So long as I just remember to be GOOD ENOUGH.
Perfectionism is often a form of procrastination. My favourite books on the subject of procrastination – which I’ve studied at length (probably whilst I should have been doing something else!) are: