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There’s no point to perfectionism

There’s no point to perfectionism

Like me, you may have grown up hearing perfectionism referred to as something of an accolade, to be admired. Things like “Oh him? He’s a real perfectionist you know”.

I’ve had reason to look in detail into perfectionism over the last 18 months and what I turned up was far from pleasant. Perfectionism can be a massively a destructive force. Whether in an individual’s own life or as a work philosophy, perfectionism delivers misery more often than positive outcomes.

One of the greatly–lauded perfectionists of our age, many of his ex–colleagues attest to Steve Jobs’ relentless attention to detail. Yet the great irony is that no matter how hard Jobs tried, no matter how obsessively he attempted to control every facet of Apple’s output, he never did achieve the perfection he so desired.

Consider this: if Jobs was such a perfectionist, then why are we on version 7 of the iPhone? Why is it that Jobs himself oversaw four versions of the iPhone during the last years of his life?

If you’ll excuse the flippant, potentially crass tone, the point isn’t to denigrate Jobs’ huge achievements during his lifetime, or to belittle the shifts in consumer behaviour his genius ushered in. It is simply to illustrate the absurdity of perfectionism.

Back in 2010, one of Jobs’ legendary random responses to a customer email enquiry hit the news. Jobs would sometimes decide to reply sporadically to these enquiries, knowing full well his note would make its way to journalists, thus allowing him to address press speculation or curiosity with simple (and terse) single–line emails.

In this instance, the enquiry was about a perceived quirk in the iPhone 4, which meant that routine use of the phone would cause it to lose reception due to contact with the user’s hand. Jobs’ reply? “Just avoid holding it that way”. His response drew much mirth among the Apple faithful, as if Jobs had just dismissed the whole issue with a single caustic quip.

But that wasn’t the case. Indeed, the issue eventually prompted Apple to begin offering free bumper cases to anyone buying one of the phones. The product was fundamentally flawed, and even Jobs couldn’t prevent it from being so.

Certainly perfectionism can be a huge driver to success. It can be the merciless engine behind that incessant attention to detail. However when it comes to goal–setting and improvement there is a world of difference between “not good enough” and “we can do better”. “Not good enough” tends to become “never good enough”.

So what do we take from this? What should we apply to our products, our services – stop trying, because it’s not worth it? Far from it.

The philosophy of Kaizen like many great ideas is deceptively simple. Despite the adopted Japanese name (meaning improvement or literally “good change”), the philosophy originated in the USA and was brought to Japan by American occupying forces following World War II during work to rebuild the country. 

In short, Kaizen promotes a culture where all members of a team contribute proactively to achieve systemic, incremental improvements. Crucially, this requires not only the willingness to point out a potential weakness, but to suggest how to improve or counteract it.

Kaizen was adopted most notably to great effect by car manufacturer Toyota during its golden years, as a way of improving production processes. While Kaizen delivers often small returns, its power is revealed over time. Through a culture of continuous, focused small improvements the approach gradually yields huge results, as all of the small changes build to what can be massive shifts in process or technique.

For products and services, Kaizen is a natural partner for both Lean and Agile. It is complementary to both, and promotes a healthy pursuit of excellence, rather than a damaging tailspin of perfectionist thinking. This is design thinking.

Kaizen is the very embodiment of the phrase “Don’t let perfect be enemy of the good”, the difference being that ‘perfect’ is a fictional destination; it doesn’t exist. There is no finish line; there is only improvement – constant, hard–fought improvement that won’t make headlines, but will make for an effective and sustainable approach to improving quality.

To throw a final piece of philosophy into the pot, ”every journey begins with a single step”. What Lao Tzu’s ubiquitous words might not say but certainly imply, is that every journey continues with a series of those single steps.

Increments, in fact. Iterations.


By Rick Monro

Rick was UX Director at Fathom from 2014 to 2017, when he left to take up a role as Principal UX Architect at Puppet.

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