Perfectionism produces wonderful results, but you can often produce even better results by setting your sights lower. Sound impossible? Click to learn how.
My boss Len gave me a t-shirt on my first day on the job. It read, “My standards are simple: I want it perfect.”
He thought he was giving me a subtle message about the quality of work he expected from me. Little did he realize that my standards for him were just as high.
We were working on a new curriculum for Harvard Business School. One of our goals was that each incoming student meet as many other students as possible, to form a strong community bond. You’ve seen a puppy pile? Imagine a puppy pile made up of 250 investment banker wannabes and you’ll have some idea of what we were trying for.
I, being a perfectionist, created an Excel spreadsheet. A very, very large Excel spreadsheet. We would paste the student names into column B and click Print. The spreadsheet would compute a personalized schedule for each and every student—no two schedules alike—that insured each student would meet as many others as feasible, without alcohol (that’s very important. Harvard MBAs aren’t pretty when they’re drunk). Not only were the schedules unique, but they were beautiful! At my review, I asked Len how I was doing. He gave me the highest compliment I had ever received: “You are producing work at the 97% quality level. That’s absolutely amazing.” I felt great!
Then he said, “Of course, you spent 90% of your time getting the quality level from 83% to 97%. If you had simply settled for 83%, you could have gone home at night and eaten something other then gruel.”
My heart sank a bit, as I fantasized about how other people lived, and realized I could live just like them. But Len wasn’t finished. He delivered the coup de grace (that’s French for a psychological mixed martial arts move): “Of course, the students and faculty would have been perfectly happy with a 60% level. In fact, pretty much no one in the world except you and me would even notice the difference between 60% and 83%.” Then he went off and ran a Fortune 500 company while I pondered how my life could have gone so terribly, terribly off course.
The answer is in these three numbers: 97%, 83%, and 60%.
Ninety seven percent was my own internal quality goal. It was the desire to be best in class, world wide. I was like a bowler aspiring to bowl a 300 game, or Kim Kardashian aspiring not to make a sex tape for 10 consecutive minutes. Technically an attainable goal, but one whose achievement requires almost inhuman effort to reach. Efforts like this reach a point of diminishing returns. The closer you get to perfection, the more effort it takes to get even a tiny bit closer to the goal.
When choosing your aspirational quality level, remember that how long it takes you to reach that level is part of the definition. Saying “I want to write the world’s best vendor receivables report!” is all very well and good, but it could take you weeks or months to inscribe the numbers on parchment in gold leaf.
By then, vendors would have paid their bills and the report would be obsolete. A better quality goal would be “I want to write the best vendor receivables report that can be written in 5 days.” That way, you’ll limit the resources you pour into the effort to a reasonable level. Instead of gold leaf and parchment, you might just use a fountain pen and Levenger 60-pound rag paper.
Make sure your aspirational quality level has a timeframe attached, so you don’t pour unlimited resources into tiny gains (not that anyone would consider anything about Kim Kardashian tiny).