Putting perfection in perspective

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We had a Client who had his own way of evaluating anything that was presented to him…strategic recommendations, creative executions, marketing plans…everything. He would draw a matrix on his whiteboard. Down the left column were his evaluation criteria. Across the top were the alternatives being presented. Say it was four campaign directions. He would review each alternative and put an “X” in any box that was not achieved. Four out of five criteria were not enough. So, it was back to the drawing board in pursuit of perfection. For him, it was absolute perfection or nothing. As you may have guessed by now, it was “nothing” way too often. Of course, eventually the deadline loomed and, not happily, whatever was left on the table was his default choice.

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It may sound as though we are arguing against the pursuit of perfection. Hardly. The questions we are raising are: “When is it time to accept the current state of near-perfection and act?” and “How do you know when that time has come?” Of course, a sense of frustration, “analysis paralysis” and statements like, “That’s not it either, but I’ll know it when I see it,” are all possible indicators that it’s time to move to the next stage of development. But, there are also more strategically founded principles that we have utilized to identify the logjam, relieve the frustration and even help avoid it from the outset.

We’ve joined our clients in the pursuit of perfection many, many times over the years. And there have emerged a series of patterns and principles that have become guideposts for successfully managing that pursuit. Here are a few of the things we’ve learned about avoiding the endless search for perfection.

Set the yardstick at the outset To paraphrase Lewis Carroll: “If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?” Seems pretty obvious. And yet, we have been called into many projects where the first thing we ask for is the brief that defines the project parameters – only to be told that one doesn’t quite exist. We understand things move fast. We’ve heard the reasons: It’s a simple request. We know how it’s been done before. Still, so many times a lack of progress has been traced to a lack of clarity about what needs to be accomplished. Taking the time to agree on the parameters and goals…concise, single-minded, reasonable and prioritized will actually get you there faster. Trust us. But, remember setting the “yardstick” does not mean pre-determining the “answer”.

Avoid shifting parameters Having set the goals and expectations, try to keep them a constant. Notice we didn’t say “etched in stone.” But, maybe in ink rather than pencil. One lesson we’ve learned is that the best goals define the desired change, not necessarily what success looks like. That leaves room for a variety of predictable and unpredictable ways to achieve change. Some, often better than what could have been assumed going in. Of course there are good reasons to modify ingoing expectations and goals but, they should be just that, modifications not changes to deal with new issues or opportunities outside the scope of the project. Those would likely be better addressed with a new project rather than derailing the existing one.

What’s good is more important than what’s missing So now we get back to the matrix of doom described above. Here’s where quality beats quantity almost every time. Not all criteria are equally important. A technique we use here is to challenge ourselves and the Client to decide which criterion we would choose if we could accomplish only one thing. Seems simple but it’s surprisingly challenging. While we wouldn’t necessarily abandon all but one of the criteria for a project, we think it is critical to weigh the impact of what is covered against the loss of what isn’t. A smartphone is great at a lot of things, but it’s a lousy word processor, even though you can put the app on it. Would you have waited to launch the iPhone because it fell short on word processing? How fortunate for Apple that they didn’t wait.

Moving on is about being choiceful As one Client put it so well, “You can’t strategize forever”. At some point you have to make hard choices and accept that you may not accomplish everything in one shot…but you have to get behind the decision and take action.” Amen. This gets all the way back to why the project was started in the first place. To create change in the marketplace. At some point it may be more effective to accomplish change with smaller steps rather than doing it all in one giant leap. Rare are the efforts that turn the marketplace upside down. While time and cost are always important, more likely more will be accomplished in incremental steps to a greater goal.

But how do you know? Well, it may be time to move on when…
…it’s hard to tell the difference. When all of the alternatives become homogenized because they are trying to accomplish the same broad, disparate set of goals. This has often been the opportunity to reassess with “quality vs. quantity” in mind and look for the gem that can be brought forward and focused on.
…you think you’ve seen that before. You look at the latest iteration and can’t tell it from the last. What we have often done at this point is encourage the Client to go back and review some of the earlier work with a fresh eye and a more single-minded focus on what is most important.
…you can’t find the thread. When it feels like you are looking at a series of (perhaps brilliant) one act plays strung together rather than a focused, impactful whole. That could mean it’s time to be choiceful and focus in on your highest ranked, must-have criteria.

So for today’s Strategy Break here are a few questions to help you get the most out of your pursuit of perfection:
  • Is there a brief driving this project and does it have the scope and latitude to efficiently generate a range of quality alternatives?
  • Are the criteria focused and are they appropriately prioritized?
  • Are we prepared to recognize and embrace an unanticipated solution with great potential that may emerge from the process but, perhaps, diverges from our criteria?

And if the idea of unique solutions with great potential emerging from your work sounds appealing to you, give us a call. We’ve been thanked by many Clients for helping them bring balance to the search for perfection.

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