The Dangerous Pursuit of Perfection

There’s a misguided notion afoot in project management and many other business activities that perfection is the ultimate goal of any effort. I come from a technology background, and IT execs spend hours considering how many “nines” they should strive for in terms of system uptime, with “5 nines” representing 99.999%.

What is often ignored in these discussions that contain words like excellence, perfection, zero defects, and nines is that there’s a cost associated with perfection, and often diminishing results as you strive ever closer to that elusive goal. Striving for perfection in areas where you or your group struggle may also be counterproductive. If your team is filled with exceptional strategists, for example, forcing them to focus on implementation may cost more in the long run than outsourcing that activity to another entity. When you start to consider chasing more nines and striving toward perfection, don’t forget the following:

Build your strengths first

After several years of effort, I’ve become a reasonably competent runner. I’ve recently added some track workouts to my regimen, and with minimal additional effort (replacing one run each week with a targeted speed workout) I’ve vastly improved my performance. Dancing might also serve as a great way to improve my fitness, but overcoming my lack of coordination and rhythm would take far more effort than merely modifying an activity I’m already doing.

I noticed this during the recent Olympics. Even at the pinnacle of sporting prowess, most of the top athletes honed their individual strengths and leveraged them to win events, rather than focusing on their weakest areas. For project teams, identifying your strengths and working to accelerate them usually offers a far greater amount of output for a given input than trying to bring your team from last place in a weakness to third from last. Especially in business, as we can often buy talent in our weakest areas, from high-end strategy services to low-skilled implementation help.

Perfection is expensive

While it might make for inspirational talk, perfection has a very high cost in two major areas. As already mentioned, it usually takes more effort to bring a very weak skill to mere mediocrity than going from good to exceptional. Furthermore, once operating at a competent level, pushing further grows increasingly costly. Like the IT leader striving for more “nines,” each additional move has a high financial cost that eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns. Oftentimes, if you can achieve 80% of an objective, it’s more cost effective to settle for “good enough” and move on, especially if human life and livelihood are not on the line.

In addition to the financial cost of pursuing perfection, there’s a risk of losing focus on other, more important areas. One has only to look at the litany of exceptional companies that began to focus narrowly on one area, chasing perfection, while the market or a competitor passed them by. The majority of the companies in the well-regarded business book Good to Great are now neither, usually because they became lost pursuing some unimportant benchmark in the name of perfection.

The imperfect project team

For your own project teams, take some time to determine the strengths of each team member or group. While most PMs are good at dividing and assigning work, we occasionally forget to consider whether a task or objective plays to our strengths and pushes toward the 80%, or if it’s a costly boondoggle in the name of perfection. There’s usually a chance to revisit elements of a project and seek further refinement. I’d always rather revisit an objective when I finish all the critical elements of my project early and under budget than have a perfectly-executed weakness while the rest of the project remains incomplete.

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