Perfection is the enemy of the good… and the friend of Parkinson’s


It’s been a long time since I wrote the article on Parkinson’s law. Yes, that sentence that states that “work expands to fill the time available for it to be finished” and that those of us who talk about productivity mention so many times. An example is the liters of electronic ink that have appeared on the subject with various authors such as Jeroen Sangers, Antonio José Masiá, Jerónimo Sánchez, and a long etc…

My reflection today, however, is about how we got to that situation and I have found myself with two very different situations, but both I think are very unproductive. With completely different reasons and radically different solutions. On one side are/we are those who leave everything to the last minute and on the other side are/we are those who can eternalize themselves seeking perfection. Come on, as you can see, very different situations that end up delaying the delivery of a job until the last minute.

Leaving everything to the last minute.

In this group are those who often use the phrase “I work better under pressure.” They are the ones that are normally referenced in articles on Parkinson’s law. For various reasons they let “the bull catch them”. They are born procrastinators. There is always something better to do than get on with this project. They don’t swallow the toad. They don’t cut up the pork (the pork is eaten little by little, as a boss of mine used to say).

In short, they are the ones that the term is going to throw at them yes or yes. And a couple of days before they can be 60% of the project. I’m sure we know someone like that. What’s more… possibly we too have suffered from this shortcoming at some time… even when we were students… Who didn’t get into an exam with the notes “at first glance”?

Looking for perfection.

And that we all know of a case from the previous group does not imply that this is unique. There is another group of people that Parkinson’s Law also affects a lot. Those who begin to obsessively review their project. Looking to leave it “nickel”, perfect, unpolluted.

I think this second group is in a better situation, since at the end date they are sure that they have a minimum viable product (agile terminology); but they are always giving it a final touch. And yet, for this very reason they are being, in my opinion, largely unproductive.

The business world phrase for this situation is what gives the article its name: “perfection is the enemy of good.” Let’s imagine that you have your presentation ready 3 days before having to make it. But you start checking it over and over again. That if you modify the texts (the “wording” that your boss says); that if you improve the common thread (“the story telling”); that if you align all the boxes, that if you look for an image that sticks more to the text, that if you try another slide master… And in the end… the deadline is over and the presentation has not been sent.

Are you saying that it is bad to do things right?

Well, clearly not. You have to try to do things right the first time. Try to get close to perfection. But… I hope you have a little discretion to know when you have to say enough, when you should consider your work finished.

How much did that change of image contribute? How much did the storytelling variation mean? How much does our message gain from these changes? And how many resources are we capable of dedicating to that? If your presentation is already at that outstanding level that you demand of your work… is it really worth going for the cum laude? I suppose you will tell me “it depends” and it is clear that you will look for it the day you are allowed to meet your Management Committee for the first time, but that you should not do so much on the day of the preliminary presentation among your department colleagues (the friends and family).

So… where is the limit?

The limit is where you put it. Theoretically and in economistic terms, where the marginal profit equals the marginal cost of that additional hour of work. Which means at that moment when more effort implies a minimal improvement of your project or work or presentation.

And you? Do you suffer from Parkinson’s disease? In which of its variants?

This article was first published in “Working that is a gerund” on July 3, 2016 and has been republished for n5now on February 27, 2021.

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