Let go of perfection: Don’t waste time on projects that won’t yield much result

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Too many leaders pursue perfection when “good enough” is sufficient. Here are some ways to decide if a project or presentation is worth the extra time to get it just right.

Image: iStock/Mariia Rossiitseva

One of the counterintuitive behaviors that some of the most effective leaders possess is a finely honed ability to invest the right amount of effort in a given activity. They have a seemingly uncanny ability to know how much work a task or project will require to get to the desired outcome, and they rally a team that’s just the right size and invest just the right amount of time to get it done.

SEE: Working from home: How to get remote right (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Contrast that with other individuals and organizations. We’ve likely all lived the old bromide about flogging a dead horse: Investing dozens of hours striving toward some standard of perfection that’s neither appreciated nor required to accomplish the objective at hand. These behaviors can even creep into our day-to-day: booking an hourlong meeting when an email or two would be good enough, or creating a 60-page slideshow with animations and fancy charts, when a couple of well-structured conversations would suffice.

So how do you know when “good enough” is actually good enough? Try the following tips:

Thoughtfully consider the objective

Too many people transition to action moments after identifying a need or receiving a task. A peer might suggest that a project plan is needed for an activity, or the CEO may ask for a board presentation. We tend to immediately create the complex Gantt chart, or fire up PowerPoint and begin building a “slide stew” with a hodgepodge of slides from PowerPoints past.

However, do we really understand what we’re trying to accomplish? Is the project plan a colleague’s way of trying to determine if she can squeeze a technology rollout into this year’s budget? Does the board need to know everything about your IT strategy, or is it concerned about a recent news story about the latest cyberattack? In these cases, the project plan and slides may or may not adequately address the original concern and are likely overkill for the matter at hand.

SEE: Juggling remote work with kids’ education is a mammoth task. Here’s how employers can help (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Two dangers await anyone who fails to consider any request or proposed activity objectives thoroughly and thoughtfully. First, we may bring the wrong tools and teams to the job. This seems like an easy and obvious pitfall; however, as our responsibilities increase and the problems we’re asked to solve grow more complex, it becomes harder to define the objective behind a request. A seemingly straightforward request may belie a more complex issue that’s best solved in a completely different manner. The project plan request described above might really be a complex ask about how to speed up delivering a new product or service.

The second danger is that as conscientious leaders, we often assume that perfection is the right standard to benchmark our efforts. An extra four hours to nail the story being conveyed in a meeting might be absolutely appropriate if you’re trying to convince your colleagues to shift their thinking, while it may be an colossal waste of time preparing technical details for an audience that simply doesn’t care.

Focus on the goal, not the fluff

With a well-defined objective, it’s easier to benchmark whether your efforts are furthering that objective or just throwing away time that would be better spent elsewhere. Honing pixel-level details on a screen might be appropriate for one project, and a complete waste for another. A relentless focus on the goal allows you and your team to call complete on imperfect elements of the project that are complete enough to keep you marching toward your goal.

Realize that time is your most important commodity

Every individual, and every organization, no matter their importance, financial assets or relative importance, has the same 24 hours in a day. Perfection is an incredibly costly standard in terms of time alone, and there is no shortage of companies or individuals that pursued and ultimately achieved perfection, only to find that the opportunity for which they were striving had passed them by. It’s the professional equivalent of spending so long perfecting your outfit that you miss the party for which it was intended.

If you’re still struggling with a feeling that “good enough” equated to a lowering of your standards, try to consider time the same way you’d think about any other investment decision. In your personal and organizational finances, rarely do you have unlimited funding, and rarely do you purchase the “perfect” product or service without concern for cost. Just as you’d make a series of tradeoffs to arrive at a purchasing decision that meets your most important needs without spending too much money, so should you apply the same discipline to the time you invest in an effort.

Rarely do leaders of that sort last very long if they spend their budget like drunken sailors; don’t let that happen with your time when good enough is often the appropriate standard.

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