As a result of lessons learned the hard way throughout my career and in my personal life, I’ve learned to stop worrying about perfection. In the business world, perfectionism leads to “analysis paralysis” — the lack of action due to too much information. In everyday tasks, perfectionism is the precursor to procrastination. The fear of doing anything imperfect leads me to do nothing, which is infinitely worse than doing something — anything at all — imperfectly.
As a result of this insight, I’ve been trying to intentionally throw in mindful imperfection in everything I do. When cooking, I avoid using measuring spoons. When creating artwork, I sketch as many ideas as possible on scrap bits of paper. When writing, I often type in stream-of-consciousness just to get my ideas out. At work, I start everything on paper, whiteboards, and unsorted lists.
I start from this raw material of apparent chaos and gradually make sense of it all. I combine and iterate and remix and refine. I adjust as I go, let the patterns emerge, allow the ingredients speak for themselves, trusting my instincts. When it’s done, the product is often surprisingly good — far better than I could have achieved through planning and fretting.
In Japanese artwork, this principle is called wabi sabi — nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. It’s responsible for some of the most beautiful and poetic (perfect?) works of art in the world.
It’s difficult to see how this principle may be applied in the user experience architecture process. I am constantly faced with a project schedule or budget that is too tight to do anything perfectly. I must choose between two awful approaches — do we cut scope and deliver a half-implemented design? Do we scale back user research and requirements gathering to leave more time for design iterations? Or do we invest on understanding the problem in depth while using up all our budget for creating a solution to that problem?
What to do?
I don’t think there’s a simple answer to this problem, even though it’s one we consultants encounter on a daily basis. But here’s what I’ve learned: if all options are equally flawed, go with the one that has the least damaging long-term, ongoing impacts. Choose the approach that will set a precedent for future work. Create a path that defines your role, sets boundaries, and sets you up for ongoing success.
To do this, step back for a moment and consider your priorities and your overall strategy. For a consultant, the highest priority is to set up an interaction that strengthens the client’s trust. A client-consultant relationship based on mutual respect and trust is an extremely powerful and profitable strategy over time. Consider what will gain the client’s trust more: timely execution of short-term objectives or deep-thinking strategic analysis. If your client just wants to know that you are responsible and dependable, go with the former. If your client values your judgment and intelligence, go with the latter.
Whatever you do, don’t just sit there and refine your plan or deliverable over and over. Missing a deadline will jeopardize the clients’ trust in you far more than delivering something less than perfect. If you present them with a product that is imperfect, be honest about your reservations and suggest your recommended alternative approaches. Your honesty and openness will cultivate more trust than the most perfect process or deliverable in the world.