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How We Work – Perfect vs Imperfect

There is a struggle in modern business. As people show up for work, there is a tension between forces that push us to be perfect in what we achieve, yet we know in our hearts and minds we are imperfect in many ways. And the work goes on.

We add more hours to the day to meet that deadline or deliver the project. We agonize over the work in front of us. We shape our words and stories to present the image that a perfect outcome is on its way, ‘almost there.’

Then, when the work is delivered, there is a nagging sense that we could have done more.

Explore the Source

First let’s explore where this voice comes from; the voice demanding perfection.

For many it comes from childhood memories (or nightmares) pressed into the psyche by that third-grade teacher or gym coach or, sadly, a parent who demanded ‘better.’ I’m not talking about the loving mentor who encouraged us, but rather the mean-spirited ogre who said hurtful things. Even with many years between their angry words and your own revelation of real truths, the messages that are remembered from these horrible souls shape our sense of what we need to accomplish.

Another source of expectation comes from the bad boss who sets unrealistic demands for the team. They plot goals and standards that look like perfection, but usually won’t stand up to objective scrutiny. Unfortunately, too many workers buckle under these bosses. Instead of pushing back, you go to work and try to deliver.

Team or organizational culture can impact this too. On occasion I run into a work environment that demands 100% of the information be covered in an analysis before making a decision. There might even be punitive personnel assessments written for those who fail to hit the 100% mark.

Lastly, your own definition of perfection can be a force. I often encounter clients who have the perfectionistic personality. It torments them and drives those around them crazy. The interesting contradiction in this personality is that they usually don’t get enough done at all because they fear the work not being perfect, so they never start.

Here’s a Fresh Idea

Wabi sabi is a Japanese design concept. It means beauty in that which is temporary or imperfect. Things that come off of an assembly line, for example, are perfect, but things made by hand, like the glaze on a Japanese ceramic bowl, are imperfect. It is their imperfections that give them their beauty. (see the cover picture)

The same is true for people. It is the combination of all of our imperfections that make us vulnerable and beautiful.

If you are a leader, have you thought about applying the wabi-sabi mindset as a metaphor for the work you do? If you let your view of things shift to embrace the idea of life as a journey. Give yourself and those who work for you the grace to believe we are all working to become better versions of ourselves. The idea of a “work in progress” can become a great strategy for the work you do.

You can implement a system for constant improvement rather than always chasing perfection. As I write that last phrase it almost seems redundant and contradictory at the same time. ‘If I am working on constant improvement aren’t I seeking perfection?’

I argue NO. Perfection comes with the moment by moment, project by project expectation of scoring 100. Even college grads with a 4.0-grade point average (considered ‘perfect’ by most systems) don’t have to score 100 on every exam.

However, constant improvement is about learning from prior experience to make small adjustments or tweaks in what you are doing so that the next body of work can be a little better; not perfect, but better.

Closing Remarks

I know there will be readers who say ‘you don’t get it. If I don’t do perfect work, I’ll lose my job.’ My question is first to define exactly what ‘perfect’ is supposed to mean. There is an old saying:

Perfect is the enemy of good.

I’ve seen big corporations miss an entire market shift that could have earned them millions of dollars because their effort to analyze the situation took too long. Why?

Because they were working on the perfect analysis, covering 100% of the angles. In hindsight, an analysis that only addressed 50% or 70% could have given them enough validation to go forward. The extra effort to fill out the remaining margin to get to 100% didn’t add value. It actually cost them the opportunity.

Adopt wabi-sabi. There is beauty in imperfection if you just decide to look at it differently.

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