Perfection disrespects the fact that we have a finite amount of time. It disregards priorities. Whereas progress seeks priorities. Without priorities we would be going everywhere yet nowhere.
Writing is a good example to illustrate how a perfectionist trait could play out. David Perell, who runs an online writing school, compares two ways of writing: the Printer Method and the Pixel Method.
With the Printer Method, you write and rewrite every sentence until it is perfect. You don’t move ahead until everything before is perfect. At any given point in time, your work is perfect but incomplete.
With the Pixel Method, you focus on putting ideas down on paper first, instead of perfecting each sentence as you write it. At any moment, your ideas may need some sharpening but all of them are there on the page.
A pixel-method writer sees value in hitting a generative mode in the initial pass and gathering all the key ideas in place. A printer writer may find herself in the weeds trying to take every turn of phrase to an exacting internal standard. How often have we had to leave some questions unanswered in an exam because we spent too much time answering the rest of the questions well?
Chasing perfection in one area often means giving up progress in others. And perfection on minutiae at the cost of big-picture progress is a negative trade-off. The opportunity cost is hurtful. Here’s how from another discipline.
Amitabh Sinha leads a team at Amazon that “works on network design algorithms and strategy for the most complex and large-scale transportation network in retail.” In his earlier avatar as an academic, he has written a well-cited paper on how serendipity triggers innovation.
In a post from last year, he describes the demands of his job as such: “...Amazon’s fulfillment network is incredibly complex: between the hundreds of physical buildings, millions of items we sell, and the number of trucks, airplanes and delivery vans we operate daily, standard network optimization algorithms simply do not work. On top of that, the constant innovation at Amazon results in a physical network that is changing very rapidly, so that even if we were to write a nice network optimization algorithm, it would be out of date within a few months.”
To meet a challenge of this scale, one of Amitabh's rules of thumb is: All models are wrong, but some are useful.
When defining the end point for an exercise that can stretch out, he asks, “Is the wrongness small enough that the work is still useful, especially given the time-frame and magnitude of the business decision at hand?”
Amitabh’s account may suggest a couple of general principles.
All outputs are flawed, but the timely ones are useful.
This is a broader co-opting of Amitabh’s maxim for the progress enthusiast. We accept that anything we produce has flaws, and can be improved upon. And given we have limited time, we ask “what is the timing value of my output?” The world doesn’t put itself in stasis when we strive to do everything just right. It moves on and our masterpiece, when it eventually arrives, falls short.
Consider imperfections as a feature, not a bug
In product design, a good example for this is breadboarding--a concept introduced by Ryan Singer in Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters. While breadboarding itself has its origins in electrical engineering, it is a design practice to keep things at the right level of prototyping (read imperfection) early on. Like the Pixel way, breadboarding emphasizes on answering the more difficult question of whether something that we’re building will work (function) before we work out how exactly it may look (form).
When is perfection justified?
None of this is to say that perfectionism should be binned. Rather, in considering it, direction is to be championed before speed. In the wrong direction, speed only takes us farther from where we want to be. In the right direction, we can let our inner perfectionist shine.
Shreyas Doshi, startup advisor and product management savant, proposes an effectiveness framework that differentiates between various engagements at work for optimal impact. While it is proposed for product managers, it travels well beyond.
“You can increase your impact on the organization (and reduce the tremendous stress that often accompanies the PM job),” Shreyas tweets, “by avoiding the trap of doing a great job on all tasks (and even features). Seek leverage, actively try to do a bad job for certain tasks.” He follows that up by suggesting that doing great work is actually not putting the best effort into everything and urges PMs to pre-agree with engineers and designers on the target quality for a given milestone.
The LNO framework segregates tasks as Leverage (~10X impact; be perfect!), neutral (~1X; be strictly good), and overhead (<1X; just get it done). Seen through this lens, it becomes clear that the most harmful strain of perfectionism is the kind that shows itself on low-impact overhead tasks because it eats away our appetite for leverage. Ever spent an entire morning polishing a presentation for an internal meeting at the expense of something decidedly more impactful?
Not surprisingly, the views of Shreyas and Amitabh converge on where they see the perfectionist trait most commonly: among younger professionals. While Amitabh speaks about those less experienced “getting fixated on things that make our models wrong” and losing the big picture in the bargain, Shreyas attributes a “large part of early/mid-career PMs’ stress to not recognizing the fact that all tasks are not created equal.”
The quest for perfection is not just visible in action but in inaction too. We can wait for the perfect opportunity where everything aligns itself and the decision almost makes itself and in the bargain never take action. This can happen at an organizational level as well.
We do not fail if we do not do everything perfectly. In fact, that is precisely what may allow us to come closer to an inarguable definition of success. Be it in saying no to everything except the most important thing or putting a lid on any lingering affection we may have developed for a project, we have to learn to not miss the forest for the trees.
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