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Time to Push Back

A study by Fordham University reveals that 30-35% of careers in management stumble because of perfectionist tendencies held by the candidate.  Does that mean that 30-35% of managers are perfectionists? I argue that the quota is even higher! I would say that almost every successful manager is a perfectionist in some way… Consequently perfectionism has to be a good trait in a way, even though it needs to be critically supervised on occasions (e.g. Amy Gallo wrote about “How to Manage a Perfectionist” not too long ago on the HBR blog network).

Today I would like to discuss with you the impact perfectionism has on the course of a project, and approaches you can consider to help you keep on track.

When I was studying for my Master of Management, the major assignment of the first semester was the Common Project. It was a fairly big assignment where we were tasked with developing our very own business idea, as well as pitching it in front of a panel of experts in the field of venture capitalism and business. It was as real as a class-room project could get, and critically marked to make us allocate a lot of our time to the project.

We ran through all the customary stages of brainstorming for ideas, dismissal, elevator pitches and so on. After the initial pitch we dived deeper into all the areas that we had to cover in this entrepreneurial project, as there were marketing, production, logistics, financial, governance and general strategy dimensions to take into account. We delved deep into the details of the problems that we thought to be most important at that time which were actually difficult to target because of the limited time and the limited (especially human) resources we were given.

One week prior to the final pitch in front of the panel, we had a lecture with our program director Nick Wailes who was the supervisor of the project and our strategy professor. Nick monitored our progress and knew what we had done so far. In this lecture he told us that all groups were on a target, but some of us might get stuck in details that won’t let the project succeed if they were achieved, but let the project fail if they were neglected. Nick then said: “Sometimes you just need to push back”.

At this point it was important to stop and take a step back from the assignment to get a broader perspective, and decide whether it was time to pursue the details we were currently working on or pushing back on them and getting back to the tasks that really mattered. We had to refocus our energies.

That fact projects proceed in a S-Curved shape is nothing new and Mukul Gupta illustrates that very well in his article “Project Progress during Starting and Closing Phases”. However, I argue that this only represents the ideal case. In every project it is necessary to reflect intermittently on your progress and check if you are trapped in details that don’t lead you to the overarching goal. If you find your focus is waning you need to take action, push back, and refocus on the main objective. This point is represented by the first plateau of the double-s-shaped progress-chart of mine.

And this is where I want to return to the perfectionism-topic that I started with. The classic perfectionist has a problem at this point. The point of time when the project is 80% done. He wants a certain detail to be perfect, even though the overarching question to this detail is already answered and this detail might only be an addition, when at the same time there are massive gaps at a different end of the project. This is when you have to remind yourself and your team to take a step back and decide whether or not it is time to push back to keep on track.

Finally, if you are not running into the deadline it might even be possible for the perfectionist to perfectionize those details after the common goal of the project is accomplished to achieve a degree of fulfillment of more than 100%…


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