The tendency to aim for perfection in all aspects of our work is a recurring theme in our company—and it’s likely familiar at yours, too.
Sure, aiming for perfection is admirable — but at what cost? Were earlier versions sufficient with just 90% of the polish? Was the extra time invested worth the extra 10%? Possibly; but probably not.
A case for progress, not perfection
Before I am accused of endorsing mediocrity, let me share some scenarios that will make the case for progress over perfection. After reading these examples, I’m sure you’ll agree that more often than not, it’s in your best interest to make many small improvements and realize the gains that can be quickly achieved when not striving for absolute perfection.
Before each year begins, you’ve probably found yourself in a series of budgeting meetings, or at minimum, developing some type of financial forecast. You do this either for your own planning purposes or because bankers and investors are demanding it from you.
Financial models are more than just financial statements projected three to five years out. The key difference is they include a number of inputs for both the revenue and expenses, driving profit projections for years to come. These inputs act like dials on the dashboard of a spaceship, with some being highly-sensitive and others having minimal impact.
Where endless hours get wasted is the guessing of whether or not growth rates for an established revenue stream will suddenly increase to 25% when they’ve been at 10% for years. Or worse, anticipating a wildly successful product launch that will add millions to your bottom line.
Such estimations, which are done when there’s just too much emphasis on the goal of perfection, will only result in disappointment. Rather, conservative estimates done at-a-glance will provide you the wiggle room to be off slightly, and still have a high likelihood that you’ll hit those annual targets, all while avoiding disappointment and a loss of valuable time.
Perfection will fail you
Whatever you put in your financial model, there’s one thing I can guarantee you right now, even without knowing anything about your business: your model will be wrong. Period. It’s just impossible to perfectly forecast the results of your business with absolute certainty for the next 12 months, let alone for three or five years in the future.
Our VP of Finance reminds me at the end of the first iteration, which he’s very comfortable with, that we could spend another three weeks on the financial model but only achieve 10% more accuracy.
Given that some inputs in the model, such as currency exchange rates, are completely out of our control anyway, we’ve come to the realization that our time and energy is best directed elsewhere in the company where we can definitively add value.
Progress, in application
In an effort to save time, I suggest working from a template. For this, you can either download a spreadsheet or build one on your own that best reflects the nuances of your business.
The key, though, is to constantly review it and update the model quarterly to see how you’re tracking. Small incremental changes will allow you to make slight course corrections, which will ultimately result in an accurate forecast. With each iteration, especially the annual planning session, you’ll be able to apply your human intelligence to your inputs.
With budgets in hand and a mandate to grow revenue from your flagship product lines, as well as launch a new product, you’ll move into strategic planning mode. Strategic planning exercises could include performing a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis (also known as SWOT), brainstorming sessions, and employee engagement surveys. This data can then be used by the leadership team or strategic planning committee to most effectively use resources to achieve key objectives.
Many strategic planning meetings are used to surface every good idea from the recent past in hopes of getting it approved for implementation in the upcoming quarter or at some point this year. Before you know it, the list is far too long given the financial and human resources the organization has. Clearly there’s a disconnect, but who will be brave enough to state the obvious?
Establish priorities instead
It’s in these moments that someone must speak up and turn the conversation to establishing priorities. Given that time is finite and — for many companies, money is too — only so much can be accomplished in a given year. Does this mean you’re being pessimistic, or worse, defeatist?
Not at all. In accepting this, you’re ultimately empowered to be realistic because you know that by making the choice of progress over perfectly accomplishing every item on the list, you’ll avoid huge budget overruns and a burnt out staff.
Create healthy boundaries
Boundaries are one of the best ways to qualify which ideas are formalized into project teams and which initiatives get funding. Consider setting a limit of three big projects per quarter; that’s one per month.
More than that will likely get cut anyway, or pushed into the future. By creating healthy boundaries, such as caps on time to be allocated or funds to be used, you’ll set yourself up for success.
Accept the tradeoffs
Maturity is exhibited in business when you and your senior leadership know the limitations, be they financial, legal, technological or otherwise. Making the decision to pursue progress and take incremental steps forward in the right direction will lower the risk of big bets that could go bust.
In doing so, you’ll also avoid projects that never seem to get off the ground because they’re indefinitely stuck in pursuit of perfection. Progress is what has defined humankind’s advancement, and it should be no different in your company.
This article has been edited.
David Ciccarelli is the co-founder and CEO of Voices.com, the online marketplace that connects business people with professional voice over talent. The unique blending of his audio engineering background with business savvy and product development afforded David the creative freedom to pursue his passion for innovation. Connect with @davidciccarelli on Twitter.