Beware the Perfect Analysis

You’ve probably already heard this saying, right?  “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”  The idea is that many people, striving for perfection on a project, end up dithering on the details for so long that they fail to deliver anything.  It essentially becomes a form of procrastination to fine-tune the details rather than getting a first version of something to your boss or your customers and getting real feedback on it.  Personally, I find this aphorism to be very true.  As a manager, you should be aware that this problem can be very dangerous, especially for people who are always trying to over-deliver.

When I was a couple of years out of college, I worked on a project defining the strategy for a big luxury travel venture.  The company was going to offer unique multimedia content and booking for luxury accommodations and activities for a variety of global destinations.  We were going to bring the “experience economy,” a big idea back in the late 90’s, to travel.

As a lowly business analyst, one of my tasks was working with a specialist consulting company to pick the first set of destinations we would focus on – places like Bali, Tuscany, and Paris.  I dove in with enthusiasm and started defining the perfect analysis for selecting locations.  It was supposed to incorporate traveler volume and spending, destination themes, exclusivity, and a variety of other sophisticated metrics.  The only problem was that this analysis was virtually impossible to execute.  There was no data available for some of the metrics, and virtually all of them turned out to be rather amorphous (Are people traveling to Florence, Tuscany, or Northern Italy?  Should we be comparing that with Capetown or South Africa as a whole?  Are we looking at US travelers, or should we include Europe and Japan?  Or no, let’s do a weighted average based on GDP per capita at the 80th percentile!).  Pity the poor consultants I was working with.  They lacked the communication skills to get me to accept a more basic version of the work, and I didn’t have the perspective to realize I was massively over-engineering the analysis in an attempt to create a “perfect” answer to a question that would be judged subjectively anyway.

So what happened?  The analysis blew up.  The consultants couldn’t get it done in time, the executive sponsor had to get involved, and everyone ended up with egg on their faces.  That screw-up probably cost me a promotion a year later.

The point is a simple one:  It’s better to be certain that you can deliver a solid version of the work than to strive for perfection that you and your team may not have the time, experience, or skills to complete.  You need to make a sober assessment of your organizational capacity and plan accordingly.  More generally, putting work out early is also a great way to get feedback from the customer or from management to make sure you’re not going off on a tangent.  If you do decide to strive for the stretch goal, build in a fall-back deliverable.  If possible, complete that first, before adding bells and whistles.  Put in checkpoints where you can step back and figure out whether you’re really on track or need to cut scope to keep the project under control.  Delivering a polished version of good enough is often more valuable and much less risky than a rushed or late product that aims for perfection.

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