perfectionism

check the box and move on

checkboxThe other day I heard someone say, “It’s better to do the right thing poorly than the wrong thing well.” This made me stop. Do something poorly? Blasphemy! Yet…

So many of the things we measure in business (and in life) make no distinction on whether our actions are focused on the right or the wrong things. Only: 1) whether or not we’ve accomplished them; and 2) how well we accomplished them.

Check the box and move on. Don’t bother to consider whether the actions helped or hurt, moved us forward or held us back. Focus on quality, not usefulness. Check the box and move on regardless of whether there was a different action – a better action – we could have taken.

Check, check, check.

People ask us how our day was. We say, “Busy.” We don’t say, “Productive” or “Effective” or “It was bumpy but we’ve made some good strides in the right direction.”

It makes me wonder how much time we spend focused on doing the wrong thing well. Measuring whether something is done is so much easier than measuring if it was right or the best thing to do. So we don’t worry about it.

Nope. Just check the damn box and move on.

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good enough vs good enough isn’t

If the 80/20 Rule holds up, 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. Seems accurate enough. Getting something to 80% good takes much less time than the final 20%. And that final bit can easily take 80% of the total time spent.

Take the 80/20 Rule to heart and two distinct philosophies emerge:

1. Get it to good enough and move on. Focus on getting things to 80%. It’s good enough and frees up a tremendous amount of time, allowing you to get more done. Get it rolling and correct as you go. This gets to the heart of the idea that imperfect action beats perfect inaction. However, there is a fine line between “good enough” and “not good enough”. End up on the wrong side of that line and you’re sunk because you’d have been better off not doing it at all than spending just enough time and effort to make it useless, incorrect, or wrong.

2. Good enough isn’t. Cranking out mediocrity more and faster is hardly a win because it’s the final 20% that really sets your product or service apart. The risk is that the final 20% causes delays, isn’t valued by the end user, or prevents focusing on higher priority work.

Of course, real life isn’t either/or simple. Sometimes good enough is good enough. Sometimes good enough isn’t. The trick is knowing the difference.

What thinks you?

flashback friday: quick thought on perfection

Imperfect action will beat perfect inaction any day of the week. It’s easy to get caught up in planning every detail perfectly and not moving forward until everything is meticulously thought through. And if you fall for that trap, you’ll get crushed by someone who was able to immediately execute a pretty good plan.

[this was originally posted on June 16, 2011]

flashback friday: good enough isn’t, but great enough is

[This was originally posted on October 14, 2011]

I’m a big believer in the concept that good enough isn’t. Hitting the bare minimums isn’t success, it’s temporary survival. Sadly, most companies seem to struggle to reach even the level of good enough. They shoot for good enough customer service, good enough prices, good enough hiring policies, good enough management development, good enough training, etc. The problem is that, at the very theoretical best, it will only be good enough. In the real world, a bunch of attempts at good enough added together tends to equal not good enough. Aiming for “good enough” seems to get us to “doesn’t completely suck”.

In fact, I’d like to propose a real world rating scale. Feel free to use it for performance appraisals, evaluating processes, due diligence for investments, whatever you need a rating scale for. Here it is:

  1. Sucks
  2. Doesn’t completely suck
  3. Good enough
  4. Great enough
  5. Phenomenal, but exceeds the point of diminishing returns
On this scale, there is only one rating worth hitting: “Great enough.” Although “Phenomenal” sounds like a good thing, there comes a point in any quality improvement where the costs/effort/resources required for additional improvement become an exponential curve while improvements move along a very flat linear curve. In other words, you’re spending tons of resources for ounces of improvement. This is perfectionism getting in it’s own way.
But, “great enough”… Getting to great enough requires a completely different set of questions, decisions, actions than it takes to be merely good enough. Consider this: getting your life to good enough is easy. You’re probably already there. But what would having a great enough life look like and what would it take to get it there?
How freakin’ cool would it be to work for a company that focused on doing everything great enough? How incredible would it be to know that all your efforts at work were consistently great enough? Who wouldn’t sing the praises of a company that only hired people who were great enough?
I’ll give you tonight to mull it over. Tomorrow morning, what are you going to do to start kicking butt and creating great enough relationships with your friends and family? What are you going to do to create great enough health? To start getting your finances into great enough shape? Come Monday morning, what are you going to do to take your team to great enough? If you’re in HR, what are you going to do to create great enough selection and onboarding processes? To help the managers you serve to become great enough leaders? To create a great enough company culture?
Great enough. Love it!

 

imperfect action beats perfect inaction

“I can’t remember how it begins.” My six-almost-seven year old son was warming up for his first martial arts tournament and he was pretty nervous. He had been practicing a form – a pattern of movements – for a couple of months, but he went completely blank.

One of his instructors pulled him aside and said, “When you get out in front of the judges, if you can’t remember what to do, just make it up. Just do some moves until you get to a part you remember. That’s better than freezing up.”

Great advice for life. You can stay frozen, not starting until you can do it perfect. Or, you can jump in, get moving, do what you think is right (or close), and correct on the fly. There are very, very few situations where doing nothing is better than doing something and improving as you go.

Words to live by: imperfect action beats perfect inaction.

standing in my own way

“Am I the only one standing in my way? Am I my own merciless enemy?” ~ Jamey Jasta

 

Ever drive the go-karts at an amusement park? You know, the ones that accelerate sloooowly and have a top speed so low that you never need to brake. Press gas pedal as far as it will go and leave it there as you steer around the track. There’s never enough room to pass so you have to get really aggressive to get around that one kart that is even slower than yours. You work and work and work to wring every ounce of speed out of the kart and feel like you’ve finished the Indy 500 when you’re done. Or maybe it’s just me…

As industrial and heavy as those karts look, they actually have the potential to go faster. Quite a bit faster. The engines have a governor on them that restricts power and prevents you from approaching litigious speeds.

A friend once bought a new truck. It ran fine and he was plenty happy with it – no complaints. Then, one day, he discovered by accident that he had only been pushing on the bottom of the gas pedal. It would stop against the floor when there was still room for the rest of the pedal to move. Suddenly, his truck had more power than he knew what to do with. Just by moving his foot. There was no governor on it, but there might as well have been. The truck had a ton of potential power that he hadn’t known existed.

How often do we do this to ourselves? How often do we go along thinking life is ok, completely missing the potential awaiting? How often do we restrict ourselves and go through life with a governor on?

Think about all the times we’re unable to operate at our peak because we eat, drink, or smoke too much or get too little sleep or exercise. It’s like we’ve put a restrictor plate on our lives. The physical side is an easy target, but what about the mental? That’s where we really mute our lives.

How often do we:

not speak up because we’re shy, don’t want to take a chance, fear failing, or don’t think we can?

try to fade into the background and not be noticed at work?

worry about things that have only the slightest chance of happening?

wait “until the time is right” before starting something important?

decide that this is what is and just resign ourselves to every day being just like today?

sell ourselves short?

refuse to do anything unless we can do it perfectly, thereby doing nothing?

stay in a miserable job because the known evil is less scary than the unknown change?

lock our dreams in the basement of our minds because not trying sounds better than maybe failing?

tell ourselves (and anyone who will listen) all the reasons we can’t, instead of all the ways we might?

trade in our unique humanness for false security and imagined stability?

believe the lies we have told ourselves about ourselves?

The go-karts are mechanically restricted and we all have natural limitations, but those are small in comparison to the self-imposed limitations. We’re all really much more like my friend’s truck: we have a ton of potential that’s just waiting for us to realize it’s there.

 

my first triathlon: getting out of my own way

I was going back over some old writing and came across something that holds true even after six years. It’s a bit long, but a significant part of my journey. Perhaps you can relate to the idea of getting out of your own way:

 

I recently entered and finished my first triathlon. It was a short distance event so I was confident that I could finish as long as I didn’t push myself too hard early on, but I had no way to judge how well I would do. An hour thirty-nine minutes and some seconds later I finished a strong third in my age group, only two seconds out of second place and three or so minutes from first. I’m not sure I can convey in words how pleased I was with my finish or how pleased I was that I was pleased. You see, in the past I would have had a much different attitude about the event and about my results.

 

There are several lessons I take from my success in this event that have strong parallels in success in the rest of my life.

 

  1. I entered. This may sound minor, but was a huge step. I am a semi-reformed perfectionist and would not have entered a triathlon even a short time ago. The philosophy of “if you are going to do something, do it right” was often distorted in my mind to “if you can’t do something right, don’t do it.” I had not swam in 20 years and was not good at it way back when. To enter this event I had to let go of my perfectionist ideals, accept where my skills were, and take responsibility for developing my skills.
  2. I gave myself time to prepare. Once I make a decision I typically want to follow through on it RIGHT THEN. Instead, I selected an event that was several months out to give myself time to properly prepare.
  3. I did not over-train. In the months between deciding to do a triathlon and the actual event I did a lot of traveling and working and was quite ill for a couple of weeks. In the past I would have compensated for this by pushing myself to the point of exhaustion and injury. This time, I created a flexible plan and stuck to that plan as well as I could and accepted when I couldn’t.
  4. I allowed time to taper and recover. “Tapering” is reducing the amount of exercise before an event to allow the body to rest and recover. A comment by a former world-class triathlete resonated for me: It’s better to be 10% under-trained than 1% over-trained. Instead of fretting and trying to get one more workout in, I took almost a week off before the event and then took off another week after to allow time to rest and recover. Previously, I would have exercised right up to and immediately after a race.
  5. I had no expectations – I focused on purpose, not outcome. Having never entered a triathlon meant that I had zero expectations for outcomes beyond doing my best and learning what I could.
  6. I enjoyed my results and did not get caught up in the misery of the perfectionist trap of “if only” and “I could/should have done better.” This learning is a fantastic milestone for my personal development. This is one of the first big events of my life that I did not dismiss, downplay, or even beat myself up because I could have done it better. Because anything can always be done better I have deprived myself of much joy and celebration over the years and it would have been very easy to kick myself over the two seconds between myself and second place. Instead I chose to look at the long-term learning rather than defining my life by one instance. Long-term, I gained some great knowledge that will serve me well in every triathlon from here on out.
  7. I compared myself to no one but myself. This is a big one because not too long ago I would have brooded over not being able to set the same time as the experts, nevermind other people in my age group. This time I was able to let go of all of that and enjoy the knowledge that I did my absolute best for the knowledge, ability, and experience that I currently have.

 

Connections to facilitation:

If you replace “triathlon” with “facilitation” (or almost anything that I’ve done) you get a pretty good snapshot of where I was as a facilitator even a year ago and where I am headed. I tended to:

  • Demand instant results from myself. There is a huge difference between setting challenging goals and expecting to meet those goals immediately without allowing time for growth, development, and learning.
  • Drive myself to frustration and exhaustion by over-preparing. While it is critical to be prepared and confident, I often undermined my confidence with 11th hour preparation and would enter the session feeling frazzled and off a roll.
  • Be very focused on outcome instead of purpose. I typically set artificial measures for myself and would forget about why I’m a facilitator, would neglect the joy of the experience, forget that it is a process and abuse myself when every participant didn’t have massive and immediate shifts. In being focused on outcomes I would see myself in degrees of weakness and get very frustrated that I was not immediately at the level of my mentors, nevermind their greater knowledge, ability, and experience.
  • Push myself in mind, body, and spirit by arriving at sessions weary from travel and over-preparation, giving it my all, and then arriving home exhausted and strung out on sugar and caffeine from trying to stay awake while traveling. I would then get about three hours of sleep and expect to immediately be in top form the next day.

 

In retrospect, it is easy to see how I was limiting myself, but the painful irony is that I got results. My perfectionism and drive created success, but several times in my life I’ve hit plateaus or even gone into decline because after reaching a certain point of success, the harder I push the more I limit myself and the worse I do so I compensate by pushing harder, which leads to stalling out and then a downward spiral. In other words, what made me successful at one level actually prevented future development and success.

 

I have been improving over time with letting go of my perfectionism and focus on outcome and my progress is really underscored for me with this triathlon. Going forward I’ll be focusing even more on:

  • My purpose and doing my best. By removing artificial measures and expectations I am much more likely to relax, have fun, and be at my best than if I stress over outcomes. Ironically, this will lead to much greater outcomes.
  • Having a specific plan and purpose for my development whenever I’m practicing rather than putting in time and practicing just to practice. Exercising (and resting and recovering) with focus and purpose creates much faster and more sustainable results and it stands to reason that the same is true with facilitation.
  • Having a specific plan and purpose for my development in each session.
  • Looking to my long-term results and development.
  • Treating each session like an athletic event by allowing time to taper and recover. I want to enter each session fresh and rested in mind, body, and spirit and then allow myself time to recover once I’m home again. Recovery may be a day off or could just be acknowledging that I won’t be at my best. After all, I might go for a bike ride the day after a triathlon but would not expect to break any personal records so why should I expect different from my ability to work?

 

One thing I know for sure is that I have not fully appreciated the depth of these realizations. Although I am excited about applying this learning I know that these are key lessons that I will continue to get at deeper and deeper levels. I welcome any insights about the shifts that you are experiencing as you become better and better in your own life.

 

Quick thought on perfection

Imperfect action will beat perfect inaction any day of the week. It’s easy to get caught up in planning every detail perfectly and not moving forward until everything is meticulously thought through. And if you fall for that trap, you’ll get crushed by someone who was able to immediately execute a pretty good plan.