Does perfectionism help or hurt?
Aiming for perfection at work
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
A thought arrived on my desk last week about people often aiming for perfection at work and the stress and anxiety caused. Really? Who are these obsessing perfectionists and what are they struggling to do brilliantly?
A perfect 10
If you think of perfection in people, most of us of a certain age might think of Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci, the Russian and Romanian gymnasts with their routines and disciplines in the 1972 and 76 Olympics. Comaneci was the first gymnast at an Olympics to score a perfect 10. Korbut, probably the more famous, never did.
Their work was scored by an independent panel of judges working with a set of clearly defined standards and a lifetime of experience.
In our everyday working lives, judgement is often delivered by a manager and hopefully, not based on a score out of 10. A perfectionist is likely to deliver pretty good work, after all, it’s what they obsess about. Problems are more likely to arise though, because they don’t no when to stop, declare the work good enough and hit the send button. Equally, they may be managing others and struggle to delegate, or are constantly reviewing - no one does it quite as well as me, issues. The problem with both is time.
Perfection can be painful
The best example I can think of was an old IT consultant friend. He did the most impressive VAT returns. Beautifully presented. He’d even gone to the trouble of creating his own Excel template before anything was commonly available. Only problem was his majesty’s government’s patience had worn thin with late submissions, so an inspector called instead.
The return had become a big hurdle. He procrastinated because his organisational processes were almost none existent. 3 months of receipts, purchase orders and delivery notes weren’t touched until even he felt he had to act. He poured over his diary to reacquaint himself with what he’d been doing. Inevitably, he ended up creating back dated invoices to maintain a balance between purchases and sales. It was accurate, well presented and too late.
Is perfection helpful when you’re building a business?
No not really. There is a reason why the term, minimum viable product exists. Ship early because the feedback which follows from the market is invaluable and helps answer many of the outstanding questions.
With my last company we built a brand that has now become well recognised in the UK automotive sector. Writing all our communications at first, I never worried about perfection because there wasn’t time. My focus was making sure I got a regular stream of information into the market where it might do some good. It’s also an iterative process. When more resource and time became available later, we applied a bit more finesse.
When we started to hire people and build a team, what I was really looking for was a safe pair of hands. People who could replicate what we’d already achieved and help us push on further. That meant we expected a certain standard, including basic checks like spelling, a degree of independence and the ability to produce content in a timely fashion.
Much of our resource was focused on software development. There are never enough developers which means you are constantly prioritising work. In the early days we were lucky enough to pick-up tried and tested talent. Striving for perfection was never really an issue. What you’re really looking for are programmers who understand what good enough looks like.
When adding a new software feature to an existing product, the chances are you’re not building upon a perfect platform anyway. Even if it was once, it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Code is not written in isolation because it interacts with other systems which also change over time.
In this environment, the real skill is having a smart, reliable process. That’s the part which needs to tend towards perfect, not the final code. A clever developer adopts a fail-fast approach for instance, because there’s often features which won’t have been considered when the spec was originally written. Redundancy is automatically built-in from the start because it’s expected. It’s also more efficient.
Perfect the hiring process
A more immediate issue post pandemic, is not looking for perfect coders but trying to perfect the recruitment and retention process. That’s about defining how and where the work is done, adopting a flexible approach, while still keeping a team spirit, in order to create the best work experience possible.
Is good enough and acceptable goal?
If you’re just starting out on your career, I wonder if phrases like good enough conjure up negative thoughts? When you’re bright, young and bursting with enthusiasm this might not appear to be very inspiring?
I would argue that most employers are delighted with good enough, I certainly was. And that’s because experience has shown us what’s important, where to focus, in order to be successful. There isn’t time to agonise towards a nebulous state of perfection. There is often little or no reward for additional polish and there is no top of the class. Provided the new code or web copy or campaign, meets the objectives of the brief, it’s been verified, then it’s good to go. Focus on what’s next. A quick worker who always turns out good enough is far more valuable to the company than the odd perfectionist who will be higher maintenance and rarely as productive.
Does perfection help or hinder?
I feel old saying this, but I don’t think it’s going to help much. Seeking perfection in the work you produce is not directly connected to how far your career might go. Far better to invest time perfecting the processes which help support your work and always find time for people, especially the interesting ones.