- Aiming for perfection in your decisions and actions can lead to procrastination and lost opportunities.
- Most of the time, 70 – 80% confidence is enough to make a sound decision or take action.
- The benchmark needs to be shifted from a comparison against ‘perfect’ to a comparison against not taking action at all (or delaying action for too long).
- Perfecting is a process of continuous improvement and learning, rather than an end state.
“Better is good”. – Barack Obama
High-performing businesspeople are always aspiring to be the best. They might look to people who have reached the pinnacles of their fields – people like Barack Obama in politics, Colin Powell in the military, or Jeff Bezos in business – to learn how to attain the level of perfection they aspire to. Whether you admire these individuals or not, it’s hard to argue that they’ve achieved at the very highest levels. And something else they share – a commitment to strive for good, or better, while avoiding the trap of perfect as much as possible. It’s counter-intuitive – don’t the best of the best aim for perfection? But Powell famously coined the 40/70 rule, which asserts that decisions should be made with not less than 40% information, but not more than 70%. Bezos echoes this idea, believing that most decisions can be made at about 70% certainty. And Obama was committed to the idea that better and done beats perfect and not done, or as he succinctly puts it “Better is good”. Why is perfection so problematic?
- It delays action. If the standard for your action is perfection, how quickly are you going to act? Likely, a quest for perfection is going to significantly slow down action. But opportunities don’t wait for us to get all our ducks perfectly in a row, so trying to get everything perfect and avoid any possibility of mistake is, in most cases, not a smart option. Unless lives are on the line (and even sometimes then), the biggest mistake will be the failure to act at all. And some believe that perfectionism can be a form of procrastination.
- It stifles creativity. If you’ve set the benchmark for your team at ‘perfect’, how likely are your team members to throw out creative, outside of the box, possibly bad but potentially thought-stimulating, ideas to make things better? The pressure to come out with perfect ideas, fully formed, means that many good ideas may never have the chance to be improved upon and developed into something viable.
- It’s unrealistic. This is common sense – the truth is, perfection does not exist. The greatest athletes miss shots, the greatest doctors lose patients, the greatest businesspeople make bad calls. Perfectionism is not just an unhelpful standard, it’s an impossible one. It’s possibly the only business strategy with which failure is all but guaranteed.
So, what’s a better approach? After all, we can let go of perfection, but running headlong into plans without thought or reflection isn’t a sound strategy either. How do we find the balance between careless, too-quick action on the one hand, and perfectionism on the other?
- Differentiate your decisions. Bezos proposes a structure in which decisions are broken into two types – Type 1 decisions are high risk and cannot be undone or course-corrected, and these should be undertaken with painstaking care and a cautious pace. Type 2 decisions are ones where course-correction, tweaks, and even complete reversal are possibilities. These decisions should be made at lower levels of certainty – as mentioned, he suggests 70% confidence; others suggest a bit higher, something like 80%.
- Practice mental agility. A recent HBR article suggests the following exercise: practice shifting your focus from focused work (for example, reading this post) to big picture thinking (such as the overall landscape of your industry right now). The metaphor that comes to mind is a camera zooming in and out, taking in a detail in one shot and panning a landscape in another. It’s easy to fuss over details when we lose sight of the big picture; practicing this strategy helps us to maintain context so that we can decide what ‘good enough’ looks like for any given action or decision.
- Measure the risk of acting mistakenly against the risk of not acting at all. With perfection as the benchmark, any action can be seen as sub-par. But when we consider the risks of action delayed or avoided, the risk assessment can change significantly. Consider delicate surgeries – there is an inherent risk, but they are performed anyway precisely because the risk of not acting is worse.
- Channel your energy into risk mitigation and improvement. Once you’ve accepted that perfection is not an option and made the best decision possible, you can redeploy your mental effort from figuring out what to do, to figuring out ways to reduce the risks, spot problems, and course correct as needed.
- Embrace continuous improvement. Thinking “perfecting” rather than “perfection. Mistakes are some of the greatest learning opportunities we’ll ever be handed. When things don’t work out ideally, it’s an opportunity to assess what worked and what didn’t and apply those learnings to future decisions, leading to a positive cycle of continuous improvement, innovation and intelligent risk-taking that can drive your business success. If your inclination is towards perfection, see it as a process rather than an end state.
- View 80% as a solid foundation upon which to build. Rather than thinking in absolutes, view an imperfect start as a foundation. If you can quickly get something to 70 or 80% done, can your team work towards filling in the rest over time, perhaps even more wisely and effectively for having the learnings from the initial attempt?
Sometimes you need to be 100% sure. But often, faster is better than perfect. And better is good.