When is Perfection Your Enemy?

October 23, 2007

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When is perfection your enemy? When good enough will do!

Now, I’m not suggesting you use this advice as license to pat yourself on the back for substandard work, or to neglect striving for excellence. Because there are times when good enough will certainly not do! For instance, some would consider Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Michael Angelo’s David good examples of when perfection trumped good enough and paid off.

But outside of works of art, the ROI (Return on Investment) of perfection is significantly lower than “good enough.” Why?

Because perfection requires significantly more time and effort that usually adds only a little extra value. Perfectionists tend to get so focused on the most infinitesimal of details that they bring progress to a slow crawl. The pursuit of perfection wastes a lot of valuable time that could be better spent (or invested in this case) accomplishing other tasks.


The ROI on perfection is generally considerably lower than “good enough”

For example let’s say you’re in the business of making widgets. And you can sell a “perfect” widget for $100, or a “good enough” widget for $50. If it takes you 100 hours to craft the perfect widget, but only 20 hours to craft a “good enough” widget. It’s actually more cost effective to spend 100 hours making 5 “good enough” widgets, rather than 100 hours making just 1 perfect widget.

Now, I realize this is a rather simple and purely hypothetical scenario, but we should use the same rational when evaluating the best use of our time and effort “invested” in various tasks.

Perfection seekers be warned: the pursuit of perfection has a tendency of high jacking the purpose of the project by making it more about its “perfectness” rather than its usefulness. Oh, and need I mention that perfection is the most elusiveness creature on earth - way harder to find than a groundhog. Have you ever seen one other than in the Bill Murray movie?

Now that I’m sure I’ve been sufficiently removed from every perfectionist’s Christmas card list, let’s look at some strategies for overcoming the tendency.

Here are three questions to ask yourself, the next time you feel the urge for “perfect”:

  • Is perfect even possible, or am I just killing myself for nothing?
  • How much more effort is required to make the product perfect? If just a little, then shoot for the starts! But if the effort to value ratio is significantly weighted on the effort side, consider moving on to something else.
  • Will perfection really make the finished product that much better or more useful? Is my pursuit of perfection really about the project, or am I making it more about me (obsessing)

PS - If you’re a perfectionist that is seriously trying to break the habit, print these questions out and tape them to your desk as a constant reminder of what your trying to avoid.

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