On Perfectionism And Pragmatism

“Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.” In the words of Voltaire, perfect is the enemy of the good.

It’s an incredibly useful and relevant quote, but at the same time it’s one we also frequently forget. If we strive for perfection, if we are satisfied with nothing less, then there is a fairly good likelihood we will never finish. Sometimes that’s because our relentless pursuit of perfection means that we continually see new and different ways to improve what we are working on. And at other times it’s because we never actually start, knowing that we lack the skills and talent to perform as well as we want to.

This is not solely a work issue. Indeed, it is a cultural and societal issue. We often believe that we have to be the best that we can—that we need to be perfect. If perfection is unattainable, then we might not even try. Presentations we have never delivered should be flawless. Projects we have never managed should go smoothly. Reports and deliverables should be models of clarity and grammar. Our golf game should be faultless.

The problem is that life doesn’t work that way, much as we might like to think otherwise. Early in my career, I used to hate someone editing my writing. It’s something that I’ve always been reasonably good at, without having to work too hard at it most days. But I have always wanted to be an exceptional writer. Moreover, I’ve expected that I should be. And when the spelling, the grammar or—particularly—the clarity of something I had written was questioned, I took umbrage. I was entirely less than gracious in receiving feedback.

Getting better takes work, effort and practice. Over time, for example, I have progressively become a much better writer. Writing has also become easier. But I have also come to appreciate that my first draft is very rarely my best draft. That doesn’t mean that I obsessively rewrite—although I know people that do, and one person in particular who figures that two dozen rewrites are what is necessary to properly polish an article. But I do take the time to review what I’ve produced, and I actually value and appreciate editing and feedback—even if it’s to say that something isn’t my best work, and I probably need to go back to the drawing board.

A skill like writing is something that we hone over time. We continue to progressively improve, but for most of us it is something that we have done all of our lives. Developing a new skill is a far greater challenge. This might be learning to use a new system or piece of technology. It could be adapting to a new process. Or it might involve learning to cook, to play an instrument or indeed to golf.

The objective observer doesn’t expect perfection from a beginner. But the beginner often expects perfection from themselves. When it isn’t realized, frustration levels quickly mount.

This was exemplified in a recent workshop with a management team I am working with. They are in the process of evolving how they implement their strategic plan. Each of them are defining the projects that they will lead to deliver on the strategic plan. For many, this is the first time that they have thought about how to formally define a project. While they might conceptually understand the meaning of terms like outcomes, scope, success criteria or performance measures, actually defining them is a very different challenge.

For many of them, reviewing the first draft was an exercise in aggravation and discontentment. It had taken a lot of time and effort to get to this first stage. Doing so had been a struggle. They were wrestling with the process of defining projects, with not having a model of what a good project definition looked like and—if we are perfectly honest—with wanting to be done and simply keep moving forward.

The fact that the review meeting clearly identified the need to do more work and better define the projects was not a happy outcome. But it should be an entirely expected outcome, if someone has never done this before. And while a few participants valued the learning process that came of wrestling with defining their projects, this was not a widely held sentiment. They wanted them to be perfect, they didn’t want to invest more time in them and they wanted the process to be done.

The disconnect between good and perfect is arguably an extension of last week’s discussion of not ticking the boxes. The desire for perfection is often a proxy for getting things off of our list. It’s not that we wrestle with how to make things perfect, mind you, so much as an overwhelming desire to be perfect right out of the starting gate. We want the outcome, without necessarily putting in the effort required to fully realize the results.

Countering this requires finding a pragmatic middle ground. It’s not about constantly working and re-working until the results genuinely are perfect, and simply cannot be improved on—for most of our work, that’s unattainable, unsustainable and unrealistic. It is equally not about expecting the work to be perfect the first time. There will always be improvement opportunities. The quality, the relevance and the effectiveness of our work can always be enhanced.

We have to find a balance. The work needs to support the value that is required, by whoever will receive, use or assess the results. But we also need to calibrate what constitutes ‘good enough,’ assessing when we have attained fit-for-purpose for the task at hand. The more experienced we are, the easier that will be to judge—and the easier it will be to get there. The more unfamiliar an activity is, the more sensitive we will be as to the quality of our results, the more we will want to demonstrate that we are competent and the more fearful we will be that our work—and by extension ourselves—does not measure up.

The irony here is that what allows us to get better—competence—is also what allows us to appropriately calibrate how much better we can be, how much better we need to be, and whether or not we have already met the measure of what is required.

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