Is Perfectionism Killing Your Productivity?

    At the last conference I presented at, a young entrepreneur approached me, eager to get my opinion on his company. When I asked if he had a sample he could show me, he told me they were still in development. Surprised, I asked how long they’d been working on it.

    “Two years,” he responded, “we want it to be perfect.”

    Sound familiar?

    Spend enough time as a fly on the wall in any office and the tension between perfection and productivity becomes apparent.

    Perfection…or Else

    I remember my first day of my first real job. I was a newly minted lawyer working for a prestigious law firm. I walked into orientation and up on the board was a unnerving message: “Proofread until your eyes bleed.” We were instructed that as lawyers, our work represents the firm. If you send out a document or an email with any mistakes, you embarrass the firm and jeopardize the trust of clients.

    We needed to be perfect.

    Before I would send an email, I read it a dozen times. I knew that one typo and the partner would be wondering “Really? Who is this guy?” Two and I knew that he’d be lining up candidates to replace me.

    That demand for perfection has still stuck with me and I’ve been trying to get rid of it ever since.
    But, isn’t being perfect a good thing? Not really.

    Most of the time perfection is the greatest obstacle to productivity.

    No Place (or Time) for Perfection

    Perfection has no business in the world of entrepreneurship. Moving at today’s supersonic pace, you have to weigh the opportunity cost of letting perfectionism slow you down.  If you won’t send something out until it is perfect, you’re not pulling the trigger quick enough.

    To quote LinkedIn founder Reed Hoffman, “if you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

    A New Mindset for a New Age

    To stay relevant in today’s business world, you need to shift away from the perfectionist approach. In Peter Diamandis’ New York Times bestseller, Bold, he reveals the mind shift taking place in product design.

    Traditionally, teams designed and redesigned, tested and retested products in R&D departments until they were perfect. That worked two decades ago. Now, if you wait too long to launch a product, by the time it hits the market, it’s already outdated or even obsolete. You run the risk of a competitor introducing a 2.0 version before you get out your beta.

    Diamandis identifies how successful businesses are moving toward a more agile design strategy, where “minimum viable products” are brought to market quickly. Once a product is launched, development teams gather valuable feedback from the users and adapt the product, making it better. They call this process rapid iteration. You don’t wait for perfection to launch. You strive for perfection by rapidly responding to market feedback.
    Products need to be good enough to launch, and businesses have to be open to criticism and committed to being responsive to it. Although it may seem counterintuitive, this approach drives quality.

    This is true in product development and all areas of business. Shift away from the mindset that “I’ll sit myself in the corner until this is perfect”. Instead, embrace a new approach: Send things out, get feedback, adapt and change. Then repeat again and again.

    Although success is never a straight line, if you stick to this approach long enough, you’ll develop better intuition – and more confidence – about what works and what doesn’t.

    Perfectionism – A Character Flaw?

    Where does the need to be perfect come from? I believe that perfectionists are often just protecting themselves. They want to avoid  negative feedback. They’d much rather hold onto something until they’re certain it’s great than let other people make that decision.

    I understand, I really do. But you’re only shooting yourself in the foot.

    I’m not advocating you go out there and throw anything against the wall, but you need to know there’s a balance. Strive for excellence, but make sure your efforts are focused on what’s best for the product or for the company, not because you fear anything less than a round of applause. A little criticism or failure never killed anyone. Learn to embrace it and use it to make you great.

    After all, isn’t greatness the perfectionist’s ambition?

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