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When you should aim for ‘good enough’ rather than perfection

There are some instances where doing a “good enough” job is sufficient. But when you’re not in a life-or-death setting, aiming for perfection shouldn’t be the goal.

When you should aim for ‘good enough’ rather than perfection
[Photo: MiguellPink/iStock]

Perfect is the enemy of good. Done is better than perfect. The best is the enemy of the good.

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You’ve heard some version of this, whether it was in your college philosophy class or, more likely, from your Silicon Valley boss. The idea, of course, is that striving for good—or even just done—instead of perfect can increase productivity. But like most blanket statements, it doesn’t always work. You don’t want your surgeon to finish the operation and think, “eh, it’s good enough.” You don’t want a structural engineer to get 80% of the way through a bridge build and decide that “done is better than perfect.”

But if you’re working on less life-or-death kinds of projects, as most people are, it can be a productivity boon. The key is to decide when perfect is needed, and when good is good enough.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

I’ve written about MVP before and how it can be used from a personal, decision-making perspective, but this time, I want to focus on how it can be used in product development.

MVP stands for either “minimum valuable product” or “minimum viable product”: It’s the release of a product that consists of the smallest number of features possible to provide value to users. In a perfect world, new products and features would have all of the bells and whistles upon initial release. But if you add all those bells and whistles only for the product or feature to flop, that’s . . . not good.

Releasing an MVP—something good enough, but not perfect—allows you to get feedback earlier and start profiting from the product sooner.

Products on Product Hunt are also great examples of MVPs: A lot of them get upvotes without being perfect, beautifully designed, or even fully functional. Take the job site Hey Marketers, which has received 239 upvotes and reached the No. 5 product of the day in May 2019. If you look at the site, it’s not perfect. Job descriptions appear as one giant paragraph.

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But it’s not critical for the tool to be perfect right out of the gate because it still delivers value. If I’m a marketer looking for a new job, I don’t have to read the job description on Hey Marketers. I can just look at the list of job openings and then go to the website for any company with an opening I’m interested in. It’s not the job descriptions that necessarily provide the most value; it’s the compilation of jobs from multiple sources into a single list. So as an MVP, it’s perfect.

When MVP isn’t the right approach

In his book Lost and Founder, Rand Fishkin argues against the idea that product developers should always start with an MVP. He tells the story of launching an MVP for a new Moz tool called Spam Score. Ultimately, the decision to launch an MVP did more damage than good.

Before building the tool, they conducted extensive customer research to find out exactly what people wanted and needed from a tool of that kind. But exactly what people wanted was, as Fishkin describes, “an exceptional product.” Since they didn’t really have the time or resources to build an exceptional product, they built and launched an MVP instead.

Fiskin says that they spent at least $500,000 developing the tool, and it essentially flopped: “It had no observable impact on free trials, vesting rate, retention, or growth of the Moz Pro subscription overall,” Fiskin writes. He concludes the story with a statement that contradicts the idea that “perfect is the enemy of good”: “Sometimes, something is better than nothing. Surprisingly often, it’s not.”

In product development, sometimes you need to be perfect. Other times, good is good enough. Of course,  not everyone works in product development. But the MVP mind-set works for a variety of roles and situations.

Writing

In an article on Medium, Simone Michaud recommends that writers don’t worry about the micro-editing (grammar, mechanics, word choice) while writing. Instead, she suggests only macro-editing while writing; that is, editing “just enough to complete an idea or sentence that makes sense.”

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Easier said than done, especially when you have red squigglies mocking every one of your misspellings—and even some correct spellings. To avoid getting caught up with micro-editing while writing a first draft, try turning off all of your spelling and grammar checking tools. In Google Docs, you can do this by selecting Tools, hovering over Spelling and grammar, and unchecking Show spelling suggestions and Show grammar suggestions.

When you’re finished with your draft, invite the squigglies back to play.

Leadership

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Aaron J. Nurick, author of The Good Enough Manager, says there are three types of managers:

  • The good enough manager (GEM) who “facilitates employee autonomy while providing well-structured parameters.”
  • The not good enough manager who “lacks presence and engagement.”
  • The über manager who is a “perfectionist who creates an atmosphere where compliant employees are pressured to meet established goals but keep their heads down and offer few new ideas.”

To no one’s surprise, he found that people preferred to work for the “good enough manager” (and the least favorite was the über manager). To be a good enough manager, Nurick says you must act as a teacher and mentor, help employees find their strengths, and give them the freedom to fail and learn from their mistakes. And letting people learn from their mistakes means abandoning perfection.

Applying for jobs

In another article for Harvard Business Review, Tara Sophia Mohr presents the results of a study she conducted trying to find out why women don’t apply for jobs when they don’t meet all of the stated requirements.

It’s not about a lack of confidence, she says. Instead, people don’t apply because they assume they won’t be considered. Mohr writes: “What held them back from applying was not a mistaken perception about themselves, but a mistaken perception about the hiring process.” The stated requirements often describe a perfect candidate—which, by the way, may or may not exist. It’s usually more of a wish list than a list of demands. So if your qualifications are good enough, it might mean you’re a perfect fit for the job.

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Sometimes, perfect is the enemy of good. Other times, good is the enemy of success. As with most things in life, blanket rules don’t apply. No matter how catchy the phrase is, always think about the specifics of the task at hand before deciding what’s worth perfection—and what just needs to get done.


An original version of this article originally appeared on Zapier and is adapted with permission. 

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