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Perfect is the enemy of good

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Although the proverb is now more than 250 years old, Voltaire’s observation that you might never complete a task if you decide not to stop until it is perfect remains true and in daily practice. What he was saying is that completing a project can be made impossible by attempting to complete it perfectly. If we wait until we have all the answers and solved all the problems before beginning a task we will never reach a solution.

Analysis paralysis.

All this thought comes from recent events reminding me of the hazards of perfectionism and the law of diminishing returns, a topic we previously discussed here.

And what impact does such behavior have on the business? Taken to the extreme, over-analysis can cause organizational stasis, wasted resources and a failure to meet corporate objectives. In a more nuanced and dangerous form, it may indicate internal resistance to change.

When undertaking a new initiative, particularly one with some degree of complexity and without precedent, there are a few considerations to keep in mind:

Project Management – do we have the right people in the right seats? Do those undertaking the analysis have sufficient experience and understanding of the work to advance the project? Who checks the checkers?

Corporate Culture – is the organization flexible enough to accept and adopt new concepts without obligating planners to guarantee 100% process accuracy from day one? As with agile software development, can the process provide for iterative improvement?

Timeline to Commit – sometimes the evaluation of the new task becomes a task unto itself. Layers of planning, requirements gathering, design and modeling can lead to little additional value while dragging out the day to decision. Over time, emphasis can shift from the functional value of the project (why you want the new thing) to the bureaucratic, with the evaluative process itself becoming disproportionately the focus of the effort.

Return on Investment – at what price perfection? Is the organization willing to trade the reduction of risk derived from making a decision against the exposure of protracted hand-wringing?

Harold Geneen, former CEO of ITT, was fond of saying “better a good decision quickly than the best decision too late.” This is not to advocate for taking impulsive action. It is to strike a reasonable balance between making an informed decision and a perfect one. As a lifelong recovering perfectionist myself, it can be a long and lonely road to needless pain and lost opportunity.

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