The mirage of perfectionism

Posted by Heather Villa, CMA, MBA, MSM on July 27, 2009 in: Business - Plain & Simple, Project Management

Perfectionism sounds like a great ideal to strive for in business and in project management but it is a mirage – a hazy image on the horizon that will never be achieved.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a large business, a small business, a start-up, a department, or a project that is being managed within an organization – businesses need to work towards high quality completion but NOT perfectionism.

Here are some great examples (“war stories” from colleagues, mostly) that illustrate why perfectionism should not be the end-goal:

  • On a project for a large organization, one shareholder wanted to strive for perfectionism. Their seemingly small changes/recommendations/demands/improvements (intended to turn a great project into a perfect project) cost just as much to make at the near-to-finished stage as the rest of the project cost to do, and doubled the timeline. Their changes were minor – a period here an extra line there, another review, a semi colon instead of a comma, etc. Their effort to take “great” and make it “perfect” doubled the budget and timeline… on a project in which the audience would not notice the changes that were made.
  • A marketing website meant to capture the attention of prospects could have been rapidly deployed with effective results, getting prospects signing up quickly. Unfortunately, the company went through hundreds of drafts by dozens of writers because it wasn’t perfect. At the time of this writing, six months after the project was supposed to be live, it is not live yet.
  • Back when the housing market was better than it is today, one colleague was waiting to buy a house. He patiently waited through the tiniest of interest rate changes, calculating that one more point might be the perfect time to buy. He was not impressed when I pointed out to him that the months of high rent he was paying in the meantime would surpass any savings he made on the single point of interest.

Here’s where I see it most frequently… and where it is most relevant for small business owners: If you are in sales or have a sales department where you work, I predict that this is one of the biggest challenges. If you put all of your sales people into a room and ask them about their sales, the ones who are less successful will tell you that they are still working on their pitch or their presentation material or trying to perfect the marketing brochure or PowerPoint to use. And the most successful ones? They have material that is “good enough” – it is high quality, there aren’t glaring errors, and it’s accurate – but it’s not perfect. And yet they are successful because they know that these elements do not have to be perfect.

You might notice something else I’ve hinted at: The cost (of money, time, and effort) to take something from poor to good and then from good to great can be equivalent to (or even less than) the cost to take something from great to perfect. In sports, an amateur athlete needs to do less work to go from good to great than an Olympic athlete needs to do in order to go from great to perfect. And if business is a sport, no one is expecting Olympic-style performances. They’re costly and only come once a year. What people really want is consistent business wins, day-in and day-out.

Business owners and project managers: Take a look at your list of projects (especially your to-do’s related to marketing and sales). How much of it is “good enough” but currently unused because it is not perfect? Try using it anyway and see what happens. I believe that your “good enough” material can be made great on-the-fly as you interact with your marketplace. And because you didn’t invest disproportionate amounts of time and money up-front to make it perfect, you’ll be willing to make changes if the marketplace tells you that it needs something different.

Trust me. It works. Perfection is a myth. Aim for great, achieve it, and succeed. Leave perfect for fairy tales.

Happy Blogging!

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