September 17, 2009

The Perfect Enemy

It is said that the perfect is the enemy of the good. That's a lesson that many perfectionists have a problem internalizing.

One of the hallmarks of perfectionism is low productivity; a perfectionist is often someone who has trouble starting projects, works hard and then doesn't get much done in the end. How can someone work so hard and have low productivity? Because they're not happy with the work that they're producing.

I don't think I'm a perfectionist, but this brief blog post on the Harvard Business Publishing website offered some solutions for perfectionists. these points made me realize that I fall into some of the same traps. And since some people I know have complained about perfectionist tendencies, I thought I'd bring this to their attention.

Some important points from that post:

  • Folks who undervalue their expertise have trouble starting projects.
  • The same folks have trouble finishing projects when they transfer the feelings of inferiority to their product.
  • Just get started (it's better to produce something and overcome inertia)
  • Do what feels right to you (help yourself avoid being sabotaged by the real or imagined criticism of others)
  • Choose your colleagues wisely (you want encouraging and honest feedback, even when it is critical. Jealousy, insecurity and arrogance from your trusted colleagues, or your boss, are dangerous to your success)

Two big ideas that resonated with me:

The world doesn't reward perfection; it rewards productivity.

This is a huge idea. The perfectionist will respond: "yeah, but who wants to produce a whole bunch of crap?" or "Who will want the whole bunch of crap I produce if I lower my standards?" This is where you have to rely on others to support you and trust them to tell you when your stuff is crap. If you write 4 novels and one of them is crap, then you have 3 good novels.

This idea is built into Agile programming methods which strive to get programmers producing solutions to problems and avoid them getting mired in perfectionist traps, or adopting super-rigorous approaches that set the bar far too high for anyone to get anything done.

Catch someone doing seven things right before you point out one thing they're doing wrong.

This advice is for managers. I've seen it happen before: managers can sap the life and confidence right out of a worker. There is nothing more sad than someone who is working hard and producing to get the wrong kind of feedback and have the rug pulled out from under them. Yes, workers need to be managed and corrected, but worker enthusiasm is like the goose that laid the golden egg. Kill that goose and suddenly you're out of a renewable resource that is vital to the productive workplace.

Unfortunately, not everyone can choose his boss, so workers whose managers have not learned this lesson are the ones who really need some good advice. The only thing I can tell you, from previous experience, is that if you're not getting support from your manager, build your own resolve and confidence by banning closer together with friends and coworkers. Don't avoid criticism, but seek out the most constructive criticism.

Posted by James at September 17, 2009 9:31 AM
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