How perfect is good enough? | Business Ethics

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“Perfect is the enemy of the good.” ~ Voltaire

The kick was wide right… again. The Buffalo Bills were not “good enough” in their game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The missed kick reminded me of the challenges of pursuing the standard as we seek perfection.

Eight years ago, this month, I responded in another journal to the following question which I was asked again recently (following the Bills loss):

My boss is increasingly annoyed with me because I am the last one to submit the responses or presentations she needs. I’m often late because I want to make sure every detail is perfect. Her demands for quick turn-around are growing, and I am not keeping up. How do I break my habit of perfectionism?

If it were not for perfectionists, we would never have gotten Plato’s Republic, Michelangelo’s sculptures and paintings, Mozart’s magnificent music, or Steve Job’s wonderful array of Apple Computer’s products. These are remarkable works and products from people who grasped their own potential yet struggled with this affliction.

The preamble of the American Constitution says, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union…” Clearly all of us are drawn to pursue our own perfection.

A significant number of good performers are what I call high-functioning perfectionists. Like you, they are generally on time. Periodically, perfectionists succumb to the downside of perfectionism: getting stuck in details and losing track of time. When they are late, the extraordinary quality of their work buys them forgiveness. But when their perfectionism compromises the end task or goal, that’s when they get in trouble.

Perfectionism is the habit of pursuing some good beyond or in excess of that thing’s natural capacity or potential for wholeness given the time available. My definition: “having standards so high they make oneself or others feel low.”

The key to avoiding the crippling effects of perfectionism, without losing the drive for excellence, is finding the sweet spot of “good enough” which achieves the best result in the time allowed.

So how perfect is good enough? On this eighth anniversary here are eight tips:

  • Define “good enough”: Before a deadline, ask your leader these simple questions, “Am I on track?” Or, “Is this what you need?” Avoid wasting time by simply seeking feedback earlier. Let your boss help you define what is “good enough.” However, there is an exception to this approach. Your boss may think your questions are more about avoiding failure than trying hard. If the response you get is: “Figure it out,” or “I’ll know it when I see it,” don’t despair. Answer these questions for yourself. Most of us learn to find “good enough” through this kind of challenge.
  • Break up your deliverables: My mentor, COL(R) Joe Leboeuf, PhD, professor emeritus of leadership at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, often says, “less is more.” Avoid delivering a “big bang” all at once. Effective people understand the power of ordering their mind before they order their work. Break up your work into parts. Start simple, stick to doable tasks, and then scale up.
  • Put Utility over Beauty: In business, usefulness comes first, then beauty. Work outward from the essence of what is needed. Dot the i’s and cross the t’s later. The perfect plan or design or PowerPoint presentation can wait. Deliver the substance on time. If it is on target, you can improve the style later.
  • Adapt to the Situation: Consider the constraints on your situation before defining the level of excellence required. Otherwise, you’ll set unrealistic expectations. Following the earthquake that destroyed Haiti in 2010, doctors performed surgeries with crude instruments and under conditions that would be unacceptable in 99.9 percent of situations — except theirs. Had they waited for better equipment, thousands more would have died. Make do with what you’ve got in the time you have.
  • Frame: Some tasks can be overwhelming. Sketch an outline of the most important issues at stake and the steps required. Then fill it in like a painting, stopping when time expires. Your boss will appreciate that you have identified the essence of what you are working on.
  • Abandon at the Sweet Spot: Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Perfectionists struggle with the deep frustration that “it” — that project, that task, that report, etc. — can always be better. Stop when time expires. Abandoned that “it” task for the sake of the next deliverable on your list.
  • Avoid Self Deception: Remember, “good enough” is not an excuse for taking shortcuts, or not getting our work done right the first time. Having to do things over again clearly means the outcome was not “good enough” the first time.
  • Accept: Many perfectionists are stuck in the crippling grip of procrastination. Accept the disapproval — and, yes, the punishment — of your superiors and colleagues for being late. The path to perfection requires learning to accept our imperfections — while not yielding to mediocrity and indifference.

Nobody’s perfect, but you are likely closer to “good enough” than you realize.

Peter C. DeMarco is a longtime supporter and former board member of Elevate Rochester, and the author of the forthcoming book, The Good Will Leader. Priority Thinking® provides leadership coaching, organizational development and ethics education programs to leaders, businesses, health care groups, universities, and non-profits.

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