Don’t let perfect be the enemy of progress

Simon Pollock
Experience Designer
Iterating and collaborating on your work, relying on feedback from peers, and showing stakeholders incremental progress removes the pressure of perfectionism and helps you achieve outcomes faster.
January 27, 2021

How willing are you to show your messywork-in-progress to your colleagues?

Would you show it to your manager? What about to your customer?

How do you talk about unfinished work? Are your sentences full of qualifiers like “this idea is half-baked” or “I was just spit-balling here?”.

We use these phrases to lower expectations. But why? Especially if we’re just beginning to create something, or still figuring out the approach?

When the burden of being finished—of showing something perfect—is applied too early, when team members have miscommunicated about what the finished product should look like, or what type of effort it might take to complete it, these qualifying phrases are common.

The truth is that long before what we create is perfect (or finished, or shiny, or whatever), we have to make progress on it. And our colleagues can help.

"Don't wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others"

wrote Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, in his book Creativity, Inc.

"Show early and show often. It'll be pretty when we get there, but it won't be pretty along the way.”

Perfection is an unachievable standard for learning and enablement professionals. And yet, it’s an expectation for many of us who have worked hard to get to where we are.

Some managers set it as a bar to be cleared. Many of us impose it on ourselves. We imagine that others demand it and that we will be judged if we don’t deliver against it.

This burden of individual perfection can inhibit progress at work. We assign ourselves more than we can accomplish in a given work cycle, or we psyche ourselves out of asking for help because we fear we will be judged for asking. (And some of us work in places where asking for help is actually frowned upon.)

We’ve all seen what happens when perfection rules.

People undercut themselves in a meeting to manage expectations. Or worse, they avoid contact with the team altogether until they’re finished.

At Oxygen, we call this, “going dark.”

In traditional ways of working, going dark makes sense. Don’t speak up until you have something worth sharing. Keep your head down and only deliver perfection.

But going dark is a dangerous approach in today’s workplace.

Consider an instructional designer who avoids sharing their draft work, believing it needs to be perfect to be client-ready.

After hours of laboring heads down and alone, they present their work. But the theme colors aren’t quite the same as the project style guide. And the multiple choice questions need answer-level feedback with new point values. And the writing tone on each page sounds too much like a lecture and isn’t approachable.

Sent back to re-work their design, they burn even more project hours going back over every detail to make sure the requested changes are reflected on each and every page.

Re-work is inevitable, but most of it can be avoided by sharing progress early and often with team members and stakeholders.

To do this, teams and individuals must let go of the expectation that deliverables in progress must be perfect. Status updates and working meetings need to be psychologically safe. Because collaboration techniques are as important as the work itself.

At Oxygen, iterating with our teams is an essential part of everything we create. We believe that we’re stronger when we solve problems together. And we champion progress over perfection.

We call it GEFRN (pronounced Geh-FERN), meaning good enough for right now.

The beauty of GEFRN is that the definition is relative to the need. Good enough to show an early draft to an internal team is different from good enough for a final delivery to the customer.

Practicing GEFRN allows us to agree on whether or not something is on the right track. It helps us move forward if a deliverable looks good and helps us alter course quickly if it’s starting to wander from the agreed-upon outcome.  

Acceptance of GEFRN encourages progress. It sets realistic expectations and decreases pressure on turnaround time and enables people to collaborate with ease and iterate faster.

There is, of course, a time and a place for excellence of a deliverable – where it meets the expectations and level of fidelity agreed upon for the audience. But along the way, every asset and deliverable is going to be messy and imperfect for a majority of the creative process. (And to be totally honest, we have a lot of fun getting our hands dirty together. It makes the end result even more satisfying when we can all see our contributions.)

It’s only during the final steps of iterating that we apply polish. By then, the risk of re-work is minimal because collaboration with colleagues and stakeholders has helped us stay aligned to our goals. Each step of the way, we’ve solicited feedback and checked it against our stated outcomes, adjusting as necessary.

So if you must keep perfect as part of your work vocabulary, so be it. But consider the context in which you use it and the pressure it applies – whether you’re saying it to yourself or asking someone else to meet the expectation.

Who among us can sit down and create something flawless without at least some input from trusted sources along the way?  

What if, instead of constant perfection, you focused on making progress?

Watch the video below and learn about Oxygen’s favorite homegrown acronym, GEFRN, and how it can help you move faster and do better for your stakeholders.

slideshow video

GEFRN and what good looks like


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