Failure Through Perfection

One of the great paradoxes of project management is that it assumes a sort of mathematical precision and perfectionism that simply doesn’t exist for most complicated endeavors. We can carefully craft project plans that purport to track progress with several decimal points of precision, but underneath the impressive numbers lie everything from imperfect estimates to lurking problems that have yet to appear on anyone’s radar.

Similarly, this apparent precision adversely affects our judgment in many cases. An item on the plan may call for some piece of information in order to make a critical decision, and we diligently wait weeks for information that’s not forthcoming, when an imperfect decision made in a timely manner would have a faster, more cost-effective result. Occasionally we spend so much time building our “perfect” plan that we fail to consider alternatives for the time when the invariable problem arises that requires quick action and a push for a “good enough” corrective action rather than the perfect solution. Perhaps the worst example of failure through perfection is the impeccably executed project that failed to adequately understand the business problem it was meant to solve, effectively delivering the wrong solution on-time and on-budget. To avoid failure through perfection, I suggest the following:

Plan decision making early

One of the main activities that can derail an otherwise perfect project is slow decision making. In some corporate cultures, there’s a desire for “perfect” information before a decision can be rendered, and in others, decisions are feared since the decision maker is routinely punished for an imperfect outcome. Emphasize the high cost of not making decisions, and discuss who has ultimate authority in certain areas and how you as the project manager can escalate a decision for arbitration and resolution. A good decision today is usually far better than a perfect decision in six weeks.

Trust outcomes, not just the plan

Just because your meticulous project plan claims you’re 87.457% complete doesn’t mean the project is anywhere near that level. Always consider the business problem your project is meant to solve, and test its current state against that problem. If you’re building a house, check the quality of the finishes and routinely walk through the property with the homeowner. If you’re implementing a complex IT project, regularly present prototypes to key stakeholders and users and verify that they are meeting their requirements, and at an appropriate level of quality for the present stage of the project.

Plan for rain

Another mistake of many “perfect” project plans is that they don’t account for adverse conditions and failure scenarios. If you’ve ever seen the movie Apollo 13 about the ill-fated NASA mission to the moon, you’ll recall the scene where a project manager dumps a hodgepodge of materials aboard the failing capsule in front of a group of engineers and tells them they need to fit a round air filter into a square hole. Just as you’ve spent time early in your project talking about decision making, plan for how you’ll react to changing circumstances that could come from external factors, internal politics, scope changes, or technological change.

Good enough just might be

In many cases, completing some aspect of the project in a manner that’s “good enough” is the right course of action. Unnecessary costs might be required to go from “good” to “perfect,” or the time investment required could derail your critical path and put the entire project at risk. Educate your stakeholders about the very real monetary cost to perfection and talk about when “good enough” just might be the right course of action.

Despite its meticulous nature and mathematical foundations, project management is not an exact science. While perfection might seem like a noble goal, it’s often simply not worth the time and cost.


Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at and you can follow his blog at


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