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  1. Blog
  2. Career Development
  3. January 28, 2021

How Perfect Can Be The Enemy of Good (& What You Can Do About It)

The case for good enough

Woman painting white over a white wall
Photo courtesy of Polina Tankilevitch

Most often attributed to Voltaire, the phrase “perfect is the enemy of the good” is usually interpreted in the workplace to mean “better done than perfect.”

When you try to perfect something instead of making it good enough, you may not make it at all. Often good is good enough and perfectly acceptable, as long as it’s done well.

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg says that "done is better than perfect" is one of her favorite mottos. "I have tried to embrace this motto and let go of unattainable standards,” she explains. “Aiming for perfection causes frustration at best and paralysis at worst.”

It applies to more than just work output, too. When you want to learn a new skill, for example, don’t become bogged down in your search for the “perfect” learning method. In her LinkedIn post, Adobe’s Saloni Goyal says that “instead of trying to find the best resource, pick one of the good ones that suits your way of consuming knowledge (books, videos, articles, hands-on learning) and get started.” You’ll never reach your goal if you’re paralyzed by indecision and unable to take that first step.

Read more: Why Being a Perfectionist Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Why do we strive for perfection?

We asked Ida Cheinman, principal and creative director at Substance151, why project leaders strive for perfection in her field of marketing.

She says that “marketing requires significant investment in time and resources, which means that the risk of getting it wrong is high. As a result, many companies get caught up in the endless planning cycles and getting every tactical detail perfect—missing valuable opportunities to react fast to changes in the marketplace.”

In other words, fear is why we don’t let go—and that’s true whatever the industry or job. We’re afraid of losing all that time, effort and money if we release the end product before we deem it perfect.

Read more: Why All-or-Nothing Thinking Can Get You in Trouble at Work

How do you know when something is good enough?

Obviously, no one wants to do poorly executed work or act on ill-conceived ideas. So, how do you determine something’s good enough—even if it doesn’t measure up to your internal standards of perfection?

Patty Swisher, executive director of content strategy at Duquesne University’s Division of Marketing Communication, tells InHerSight that if the end product is good enough to accomplish its goal, then you can release it.

She gives an example from when she worked on proposals for new business at a professional services firm. On occasion, she says, the marketing communications team would find errors in pieces that were already printed. At that point, they would ask themselves if the error was significant enough that it would affect their chances of winning the work. If not, they would let it go in order to meet their deadline; they would only correct the error if they deemed it truly significant.

What that means, Swisher says, is don’t fix your end product unless its goal and ROI is negatively impacted. And don’t bother fixing it if the recipients wouldn’t recognize the imperfections. Otherwise, you risk constantly making minor revisions and tweaks, taxing your already-limited resources and becoming less inefficient with each iteration.

Ask yourself questions before starting the project, Cheinman says. For planning and communications, those questions might look like:

  • Do we need to plan every detail for 12 months from now?

  • Do we need to develop every piece in a six-month campaign before launching it?

  • Will our email newsletter be as good with three articles instead of five?

Your answers will guide you as to when you can determine that something is completed and ready for release.

Read more: Mastering Continuous Improvement: How to Keep Your Business on Top

Inaction has consequences

Striving for perfection isn’t just inefficient and crazy-making; it can actively hurt you.

Cheinman says that there are consequences to overthinking. In marketing campaigns, for instance, you might spend months developing creative ideas and perfecting marketing pieces that showcase how your company addresses your audiences’ most pressing needs. “In the meantime, your audiences’ needs have shifted—or worse, your competitors have already launched a similar campaign,” she explains.

Recognizing the possible consequences of inaction can help you determine when your project or product is good enough to release.

Read more: How to Finally Kick Imposter Syndrome

Release, revisit and recalibrate

Another approach you can take to be able to release tasks before they’re done to perfection is to schedule periodic check-ins.

Take marketing planning, Cheinman says. “Companies spend months painstakingly mapping out the year—sometimes to find out three months into it that the world has changed so much, the plan is no longer useful.” The solution here is to “develop a general framework and begin executing on the plan, making sure to recalibrate quarterly and revisit monthly.”

In this way, you’ll move to action sooner and the periodic testing and review will save you from going down the wrong path. 

About our sources

Ida Cheinman, principal and creative director at Substance151, uses her 20+ years of experience as a brand strategist, designer, marketer, and educator to help business leaders and marketing professionals make sense of trends, tools, and best practices in order to position their firms to win in the 21st century’s fast-changing and extremely competitive marketplace.

Patty Swisher currently serves as executive director of content strategy in the Division of Marketing Communications at Duquesne University. Patty is a brand marketing leader with omni-channel communications, digital marketing, media relations, and social media expertise. She uses her project management abilities, understanding of web/digital marketing and social media strategy, tactics and analytics, and related experience to showcase an organization’s strengths. She has worked as a marketing leader in professional services, health care IT, and higher education verticals. Swisher is also an adjunct professor in the School of Communication at Point Park University, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate students. She holds a MA in communications from Point Park University, and BS/BA in marketing from Duquesne University.

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Stephanie Olsen

Contributor

Stephanie Olsen is a freelance writer and copy editor. She writes about everything from women’s issues in the workplace and Ethiopian coffee culture to facilities management and expatriate life. Laughs uproariously at her own jokes.  

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