At some point, we have all been told to “strive for perfection.” There’s no better grade in school than 100%, and no better ranking on your annual performance evaluation than first amongst your peers. This emphasis on perfection inherent in our culture has historically driven amazing inventions and discoveries. It has also led to truly devastating failures.
Perfectionism has its place – it encourages attention to detail, accountability, and quality control. However, left unchecked, the pursuit of perfection can destroy deadlines, derail projects, squash employee morale, unhinge productivity, and completely destroy capacity.
So how do we maintain a goal of perfection without negatively affecting productivity? By separating the process from the result and focusing on how progress through the process creates the desired result. Don’t mistake this for Facebook’s famous motto of “move fast and break things,” but more along the lines of Vince Lombardi’s statement that “perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”
How does your team chase perfection while encouraging progress at each stage of the process? Here are five ways to focus on progress:
Separate the process from the result.
No-one says precisely the right words every time or completes every task correctly the first time. Though mistakes may be made during the process, it doesn’t mean the project won’t achieve the desired result. Even the most experienced employee makes mistakes.
A focus on perfection during every step of the process may grind the entire project to a halt as the same step is reworked multiple times. Rather than demanding perfection at every stage, focus on progress and achieving the desired result. Remind yourself – and your team – that there is a difference between the process and the result.
What does this mean on a practical level? Maintain ongoing and consistent communications with your team - while you want their work to be accurate, there’s a balance between perfection and materiality. Achieving the desired outcome is the priority.
Ask what accomplishment looks like – and celebrate each one.
Starting a project without a clear understanding of each of the tasks and resources necessary to complete a project can cause the project to lose forward momentum and create a resource drain (more on that below). A clear vision and project plan, including key milestones, helps keep the project moving forward. Key milestones encourage moments of celebration and focus on the next milestone, encouraging progress towards project completion.
In our personal lives, the concept of incremental goal setting isn’t anything new. Looking to run a marathon? First, run a 5k. Want to lose 50lbs? Focus on that first 5. Multiple studies support setting goals that are specific, timely, actionable, and represent an incremental step towards the larger goal. Taking these actions leads to progressive achievements and higher success rates.
Take the concept of incremental goals and apply it to each project. Ask your team for input when setting goals – something that seems straightforward at first glance may require multiple steps or have interconnected requirements. Each goal aims to move the project forward while focusing on the result, so ensure the goal provides value and supports the result, rather than creating additional work. This focus on progress helps your team maintain forward momentum.
Natural milestones to celebrate may be when the project moves from one person to another, or when outside feedback is needed from another department. When to celebrate these accomplishments will differ from team to team and from project to project. The important thing is to make sure every completed goal and accomplishment is celebrated, even if it’s just with a quick call or email to say, “good job.”
Keep an eye out for resource drains.
As part of focusing on progress throughout the process, make sure that you and your staff are on the lookout for potential resource drains, both small and large. One example mentioned above is when a project lacks definition and a project plan. Often teams will have unexpected tasks pop up that derail team progress.
Another example is when the entire project stalls because one person keeps pushing back and saying that a task is “almost done” rather than acknowledging that it’s good enough. This often occurs when someone with high levels of ATD (attention to detail) becomes fixated on the pursuit of perfection.
Don’t mistake this as encouragement for sloppiness, obvious mistakes, or unfinished work – but keep in mind that a narrow focus on perfection above all else can stop progress. One or more team members may be waiting on the perfectionist, stalling the entire project.
Don’t let sunk costs blind you to a failed project.
There are times when a project clearly won’t achieve the desired outcome, provide the benefits initially projected, or cost overruns are creating a net loss. The perfectionist will want to expend additional resources on the project, despite knowing that it won’t achieve the desired result, but we must resist!
Ignore the urge to consider those sunk costs, take a mental step back, and assess if the project can be salvaged to provide a net benefit. If it can’t, then it’s time to move on - the resources allocated to the project can be better spent on a project with superior prospects.
Optimize and standardize processes to increase capacity.
Too often, we try to make a giant leap forward, and in the process, lose project momentum. In general, long-lasting progress tends to happen in small, incremental steps – but there are exceptions to that rule. Utilizing process and change management principles to build a better business process is one of them. Creating standardized business processes through the implementation of workflow technologies achieves greater project efficiency and productivity. It also provides significant benefits to the entire organization long after the project is complete.
Consider inefficient processes. They restrict progress on multiple levels, whether because a lack of visibility causes multiple team members to work on the same task, manual processes require multiple updates, or something as simple as a task taking ten steps when it could take two. These processes aren’t project-specific. They affect actions and projects on an organization-wide level. Optimizing processes across the organization creates additional capacity for the entire organization, not just for one project.
If you see ineffective processes, review your existing workflow with an eye towards continuous improvement. Ask your team how your workflow is failing and what steps need to be taken to resolve the issues. An optimized workflow tool, properly implemented, can provide your entire team with the necessary visibility into all stages of a project without creating additional work.
A single-minded focus on perfection can disengage your team and derail a project. Keep in mind that your greatest asset – your people – is what drives productivity. By choosing to focus on progress and achieving the desired result, you can reduce the stress of attempting to achieve perfection, increase employee morale, and gain back capacity for other projects and priorities.