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The quest for perfection is a fool’s errand. You will never have the perfect product, business model, team, or circumstances. Delivering value isn’t about having things all perfectly in place. Value comes from action, course correcting, taking more action, until you find something that resonates. If all diamonds were meant to be perfect, no one would own one. Yet, despite their well understood imperfections, there is a market for them. The same holds true for what you are trying to do professionally. Stop trying to pursuit perfection and start shipping.

The Perfect Mirage

I’ve worked with several clients either professionally as a full-time consultant or as a client for a side hustle. These clients worked with different products and different industries, but the same thing holds them back every time; the quest for perfection.

Over the course of my time in college I spent many hot summers in Utah. On very hot summers, you can see heat dissipating off the black paved roads. One of the results of this heat convection process is the creation of what looks like water on the road. You would see a contrast of light blue across the dark black road. It literally looks like a pool of water resting across the road. Gradually, as you make your way to that point, the “pool of water” diminishes until it eventually disappears. If you look at the horizon of the road again, another pool of water lies just ahead. No matter how fast you travel, you’ll never get to the pool of water on the road. It is just a mirage. You are expending effort to something that will never materialize.

Perfectionism, like a mirage, is a goal that we expend countless hours and effort trying to achieve and never realize.

Motion over Action

The interesting thing about the quest for perfection is that everyone knows it is fruitless. We all admit that the perfect set of circumstances will never exist. Despite our knowledge, we still hold things back because it isn’t the right time, or the product isn’t right. We blindly fall into the perfection trap.

In Atomic Habits by James Clear, he offers insight into how we fall into that trap. You can get it here. A key principle in that book is that we use motion as a measure of progress rather than action. Although his book deals with personal and individual effort to change, I feel that this principle equally applies to our professional pursuits and business ventures.

Motion can be best described as energy expended without a result. Action, on the other hand is effort expended that produces results. In business, motion over action has various forms. Here are a few that I’ve seen in my career:

  • Continuous validation over delivery
  • Hypothetical scenarios over real use cases
  • Process definition over execution

Continuous validation over delivery

This is a motion type that I have seen in bigger companies. Typically, before anything starts, you must make sure you validate everything with everyone (typically department heads or managers). The idea is that you don’t want to disrupt or conflict with the overall strategy and vision of each department. So, giving everyone the opportunity to validate the solution you are proposing solves for that problem.

In theory this is great. I’m a fan of validating assumptions and solutions for the sake of finding the right solution. I do it all the time. However, you can easily fall into the trap of endlessly validating things due to a lack of confidence of key decision-makers or a lack of trust in your team. In large organizations, this trap shifts from getting key feedback from stakeholders (a preferred action) to deflecting responsibility and accountability for decisions that guide the ultimate solution by validation through committee (a time-consuming motion).

If you must talk to a committee for simple changes, you might be in this typical motion-trap.

Hypothetical scenarios over real use cases

In this trap, you have all you need for work on a feature or a product, but rather than work on it, you, or someone you are working with insists on addressing all the edge cases before delivering the solution. It’s important to think of gaps in the solution as it relates to your users or the business case that it solves. However, this focus can become mere motion rather than important preparation for an action. This can serve as another excuse to postpone work or delivery until things are “just right”. But the truth is, that you will never be able to identify all the ways in which people use your product. Even the straight-forward business cases will be hypothetical until you release your product. Absent actual action, learning and improvement will never happen

If you are truly iterative, it would make more sense to ship a usable product then document and address the use cases as they happen (more on that point later).

Process definition over execution

Another way in which motion takes the place of substantive action is the focus on process definition. Like the other motion activities already explained, process definition is important but can quickly devolve into endless discussions about the ideal process. If there are multiple meetings over process, you might be falling into this trap.

At some point, it is important to implement the process and refine it rather than continually discuss it. Defining processes is another way to expend energy, but that energy never produces a result or substantive action. It is better to implement an imperfect process than endlessly discuss one.

Perfect versus ship-able architecture

Now, the one key thing to keep in mind is that agile organizations need to have a simple architecture or implement solutions with simplicity in mind. As you incorporate simplicity, you give yourself the capacity to change and change quickly. That doesn’t mean everything needs to be elegant, or pain-free. It just means that you need to be able to pivot and adjust as you learn from your actions.

Benefits of shipping it

I’m not advocating for releasing broken crap to your customers. That doesn’t produce value and isn’t what business agility is about. What you should be shooting for is delivering value quickly, learning, iterating and then adding to that value. What that gives you is invaluable data that you can use and incorporate to your value proposition.

The quicker you get to market, the quicker you can learn and progress. If you are endlessly in motion without taking decisive action, even if that action is ultimately wrong, you are robbing your product, team, and business from growth. It isn’t about being perfect, its about execution towards excellence.

If you found this helpful, please share with your colleagues, friends, boss, etc. Also, feel free to start reading my Agile Laws series here.

Thanks for reading!

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David Bjarnson

David is an agile practitioner for 6 years in various capacities working specifically on software development for a number of different companies. David has his CSM, CSPO, CSP-PO, CSP-SM, and PMI-ACP certifications.

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