I have noticed over the years how perfectionism can be a blight on both work and personal relationships. It is a cultural issue and often is the cause of poor user experience. You would think it would increase quality, but it does the exact opposite.
The way I experience perfectionism in the world is when we believe that a thing is either perfect or it’s not. It’s a binary calculation. Some examples always help:
- A father might say to a child, “Oh you got a 97 on your test? What happened to the other 3 points?”
- A designer might say, “That icon is no lame, our design sucks.”
- A friend might do one thing wrong, and you cut them off forever.
- An anonymous online commenter will pick on any flaw and jump to a Nazi comparison.
The common thread is the intolerance for any imperfections. If it’s 100% good, the quality is often ignored. It is “acceptable”. If has any defects, then it is bad. You get the same negative reaction to something 95% good as 35% good.
In product development, perfectionism often comes out as criticism after a project is finished. The negativity makes people feel disempowered and depressed. In the next project, the recipient of the critique often end up doing the least possible work to finish the task. The thinking is “If I am going to be yelled at no matter what, then why bother working hard on it.”
It’s not an easy ask to change this kind of behavior or culture. How do you stop being a perfectionist? How can you be happy for something 80% good? I have a few ideas.
Embrace the Journey
Rather than think about world in terms of destinations and milestones, always think about the long journey. This means you might not have as many highs, but you also don’t get as many lows. Life is not a series of 100-yard dashes. That is mentally exhausting. Each person and project should be moving forward and growing. You need to make good decisions every week, not just at the start.
By focusing on the journey, deadlines become less important and therefore there is not a moment to call something final and grade it. Bottom line: Nothing is ever perfect and nothing is ever finished.
This goes for your career, your personal relationships, your education, and other aspects of life.
We often will judge someone or something “objectively” – as if the object is the only thing being judged. We rarely think about how our judgement and feedback will be received. People usually give and feedback terribly.
Empathy will help us see the world through the eyes of the person who did the work. Don’t give feedback as if people were robots who receive it completely without emotion..
Important: Empathy is not Sympathy. Sympathy is how YOU would feel in their situation. Empathy is imagining how THEY feel. People often get this wrong.
For work designs I usually set up a slack channel and start posting short videos of the project as it unfolds. Because everything is described as “in process”, then the critiques are not as harsh or frequent. It also helps people understand how progress is happening. This is especially useful for executives and sales/marketing people who do not always understand how a feature evolves.
Communication (early and often) is the key to a good relationship with your work peers.
The 70% bar
I typically tell people that I have a bar of quality that I refuse to go below. That bar is set to 70%. I believe I can get a design to 70% pretty easily. It’s not a terrific design, but it is passable. The effort to get up to 80% is roughly equivalent to the effort to go from 0 to 70%. In other words, it is exponentially harder to improve after 70%. To get to 90% takes even more time!
In my career, I have designed only a handful of things I would call 90% or better. I consider this a victory. It is incredibly hard to make something mature, lovable, useable, and valuable. I am very proud of those designs, but they do not set the bar for everything I do. I aim for the best possible design and then start compromising. Settling for less is inevitable. No one has enough time and resources to do everything they want to do. Compromise is part of a healthy product, not the enemy.
Think about this the next time you give feedback and try to consider the health of the relationship and the message you send with your tone and attitude.
Do you experience perfectionism is your life? What are techniques you use to combat it?