When you’re striving for perfection, how you reach it may be key to success.
Through the closed door of her office, we can hear Europa screaming in frustration. Her hostile takeover of the Elbonian economy failed at the last moment. “But my strategy was perfect!” she yells. And there’s the shattering sound of yet another lightbulb smashing against the door. On the bright side, now we have an excuse to buy new energy-saving LED light bulbs.
Europa’s strategy may have been perfect, but she spent so long perfecting it that by the time she was ready to execute (and I mean that literally), Elbonia had decided to dissolve itself and reform as the People’s State of Enlightened Certitude. I can’t pretend to understand the political ramifications, but I sure know that a bit less planning and a bit more action on Europa’s part would have gotten her what she wants.
Perfection, Like Magic, Comes with a Price
This is a common problem. We want things to be perfect, and indeed, we may achieve that. We produce the perfect product. We plan the perfect plan. We pen the perfect poem. But when we’re done, we aren’t happy, because it’s late. Or we spent too much money. Or our aspirational shmoopie-to-be got tired of waiting for us to find a rhyme for “locksmith” and ran off with another suitor whose poetry was free verse. We achieved the perfection we wanted, but we did it in a way that made the outcome less than perfect. That’s because we defined “perfect” imperfectly. We didn’t do what was needed to set the right standards for “perfect."
Defining “perfect” means including standards for the goal, but it also requires including standards for the process.
Use Experience to Choose Process Standards
Before defining the perfect process for any task, you need to identify what made the current outcome less than perfect. If the problem is that it was late, then you care about the calendar and deadlines. If you spent too much money, the problem is not meeting your budget. If people aren’t having enough fun, you need to attend to morale.
Just because you set standards doesn’t mean you need to keep them.
Deadlines, budget, and morale are process standards. They are measurements not of the final product itself, but of the process you go through to get to that product. Whether a product is a car engine, a website, or a marketing report, they can be delivered on time, on budget, and with high morale … or not. Process measures measure how you do the work. There are plenty of other process measures, like overwork needed, team dynamics, how much learning the team does, and so on.
Europa is upset because even though her plan was perfect, her timing wasn’t. It’s the process measurement of schedule that’s vexing her. (Don’t you just love the word vexing? I do.)
A Girl’s Gotta Have Standards—So Do You
Once you know which process measures are the problem, choose standards for them. Ask yourself: what does perfect mean? Where can the process be more relaxed and where does the task need to get done exactly right? Your schedule may be flexible, where things only need to happen near the deadlines they were assigned. Maybe money is tight and you have to be right on budget.
These are the process standards you need for the project to go smoothly. Your process standards are what’s been missing from your definition of perfect. Europa’s perfect process forgot to take into account the Elbonian elections, so that becomes her standard for scheduling. She doesn’t need a standard for spending because, well, let’s just say that the $1.4 trillion that vanished from the world’s economy in 2008 didn’t vanish completely.