When good enough is better than perfect

Perfection is often the wrong standard for a project and, in fact, can be detrimental to the success of your endeavors.

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Many of us in the technology space have spent the better part of our careers searching for the perfect solution to a problem. Since our industry seems to be built on a scientific basis, identifying the perfect solution seems like a reasonable goal. If we can optimize the balance of speed, cost, capacity, and implementation time, we're seemingly marching in the direction of perfection. What we tend to ignore is that there's a cost associated with this constant quest for perfection, both in terms of direct financial impact and opportunity cost.

Good enough often is

While it may seem like you're taking the high road by striving for perfection, it's often a well-disguised safe harbor from risk. Hiding behind a veil of seeking perfection might seem noble, but it's also an enabler for inaction. Consider an investor who waits on the sidelines for the perfect investment. That investor might miss the pain of a down market, but he or she will also miss the upswings and will never gain the knowledge and experience that comes from actually participating in the market.

The key to understanding when the good enough solution is appropriate is considering the cost of inaction. These costs can be indirect. For example, the opportunity cost that comes from a missed financial upside. A good enough system might allow your company to gain earlier entry into an emerging market. There's also a negative cost to inaction. You may have a system or platform that's nearing its end of life, or is incapable of handling a major event like a merger or acquisition, and each day or delay makes the mitigation cost rise.

Whenever you or one of your teams starts talking about needing additional research, or wanting to consult vendors or analysts, start looking for upside and downside costs to the current endeavor. It may be rare that someone will maliciously stall a project in pursuit of perfection, but it's often more intellectually interesting to research rather than to do.

Share your standard

There are cases where perfection should legitimately be the appropriate standard to pursue. We all hope that any surgeon who walks into an operating room has perfection as his or her ultimate goal, and there are myriad other applications where lives may be put at risk through an imperfect solution. In many aspects of technology, this standard is not appropriate; an imperfect accounting system today will likely make your company more productive than the perfect solution two years from now. In all cases, though, it's important to share your standard with your team at the outset of an engagement. Some team members may be biased toward action, ploughing ahead when some consideration is appropriate, just as others may barely move forward as they strive for the perfect.

It's a leader's job to articulate what quality standard is appropriate for a given project. This discussion may uncover reasons to reset the standard. Perhaps a non-critical system interfaces with a critical one, requiring a higher quality standard, or perhaps exigent business circumstances are driving a need for speed above quality. Have these discussions with stakeholders, peers, and those who will actually be executing the project, and regularly review whether the standard has changed.

Personally perfect

Similar to any technology endeavor, perfection can also be the wrong standard to apply to ourselves. The perfect article that is never published is far less helpful than the imperfect. This is not a license for sloppy behavior, but rather an appeal to seek the right balance between action and quality. A variant of the Pareto Principle is relevant here: Once you've achieved 80% quality, the last 20% is likely not worth the excessive time required to achieve it.

The opposite may also hold true, where you're moving so fast that rather than achieving an 80% standard, you're producing low-quality work that reduces your effectiveness. In this case, rather than striving for perfection, spend the extra time to introduce additional quality to your work by adding a personal review cycle and consider the 80% standard before hitting the proverbial send button.

While perfection may be a laudable goal for the roller coaster designer or neurosurgeon, it can be detrimental in most other fields. Before pressing yourself or your team to strive for perfection, take a moment to consider whether perfection is really the right standard.

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