Is done really better than perfect?

Written by Tom Greenwood - September 26, 2018

Several years ago, I was chatting with an entrepreneur from Singapore and she was telling me about her business.  In all honesty, I no longer remember what her business was but there was one thing in our conversation that stuck with me.  She told me that her personal motto was “Done is better than perfect”.

It was the first time that I had heard this phrase and I have thought about it on a daily basis ever since. Something about this idea resonated with me immediately, while another part of me was embarrassed to admit that I liked it – or even worse, actually agreed with it.

I think that’s why somewhat ironically, I have had the title of this blog post scribbled on my black board wall for over two years.  I have been procrastinating.  Today that changes.  Today I am hitting the publish button in WordPress, even if it is not perfect.

The reason for me being shy to admit that I like this phrase is that I pride myself on being good at what I do, and holding myself and our company to a high standard. It’s something that I take very personally. From that perspective, “Done is better than perfect” somehow doesn’t sit right and I don’t think it is what our clients want to hear from the people that they are trusting with their web presence.

For example, if I was looking for a builder to work on my house, I very much doubt that I would hire the one who tells me that done is better than perfect. I want the builder who’s obsessed with perfection, not the one who sounds like he’ll cut corners.

That’s why it’s hard for me to admit openly that I think there is actually a nugget of genius in this statement.

The truth isn’t always comfortable

Whether it feels uncomfortable or not, there is genuine wisdom in this saying.  There is a reason why Facebook had Done is better than perfect written on the wall inside their headquarters back in 2010 (and possibly still does).

It makes sense because in the words of author and entrepreneur Seth Godin, “The reason that we start things is to finish them”.

That, right there, is the whole point.  It is the whole reason that we start anything and the whole reason that we hire anyone to do anything for us. Yes, we should enjoy the journey and yes we should maintain high standards, but for many things in life, and particularly in business, what matters is delivering.

Of course I want a builder who is a skilled craftsperson and who is passionate about getting the details right, but I also want the work finished by Christmas so that I can move in.

The Formula 1 commentator Murray Walker often used to say that to finish first, first you have to finish.  It doesn’t matter if you are the best driver in the world if you never cross the finish line. Finishing matters.

To accept that done is better than perfect may be uncomfortable for many of us, but we must realise that it does not mean lowering our standards or cutting corners. It simply means that we prioritise great work delivered over eternal work in progress.

Could you be done and perfect?

I think on reflection, most people would agree that to deliver great work, first, you must simply deliver work.  However, that doesn’t make done better than perfect, it just makes it a prerequisite to perfection.

That’s conventional wisdom, but what I’ve realized, someone painfully and reluctantly, is that conventional wisdom is wrong. Perfection, wonderful as it might be, does not exist. Nothing that humans have ever created is perfect and nothing that humans do ever will be. Everything is in a constant state of flux. Culture changes. Technology changes. Our climate changes. Perfection is a moving target. It is a mirage.

It is the illusion that true perfection is attainable that leads so many great people to procrastinate, to hold off showing their work to the world and letting others benefit from it.  The illusion of perfection is the enemy of progress.

Mark Twain famously said that “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection”.  He was right, and anyone who truly believes in continuous improvement must accept that the only way that we can get close to perfection is to keep delivering work, and trying to deliver it better each time.

Steve Jobs presenting bug fixes to the iPhone
Steve Jobs is widely regarded as an obsessive perfectionist but in reality, he knew the importance of launching better than most and he knew that imperfections in old products would drive sales of new products.

Ultimately we must ask ourselves whether true perfection is even desirable.  Imperfection is what drives us to push forward, to experiment with new ideas and to feel a sense of achievement. Imperfection is what fuels our ambition, allows us to dream of better and to do better.

What a boring world it would be if everything was already perfect.  Then we would not value it at all.

Applying it to our projects

When we think about projects, how many projects have you seen or been involved in where the bigger benefits of the great work done by the team were delayed and delayed because a little detail was not yet perfect? Did the obsessive pursuit of perfection benefit the customers who had to continue using the old, far inferior product while the new one was delayed?  Did it benefit the company that could not sell its new product for weeks, months or even years while its competitors moved forward and launched something better?

In a world where change is accelerating, procrastination in the name of perfection actually makes our work less perfect, because if we wait too long then we will be working to an out of date brief. When we eventually do complete our masterpiece, the world will have moved on and it will be irrelevant.

For those of us who work in digital, the pursuit of progress is easier than for most people in other industries because our work is not carved in stone; it can be changed and so we can improve our work even after it is launched. We can iterate, responding to feedback and embracing new ideas as quickly as we are able to implement them. The faster the better.

It’s only when we put our work out into the world that we really know if it’s any good or not, and are therefore able to make it better. Launching work, therefore, accelerates progress. It doesn’t make it perfect, but it means that we are constantly making tangible steps to get us closer to perfection faster.

That’s the philosophy behind the idea of a minimum viable product (MVP). An MVP is not supposed to be perfect.  It simply represents a minimum set of requirements that must be met before we can push something live into the world, and then from there, we can keep making it better.  Minimum is the key word here, because once the minimum requirements are met, there is no reason to not let people benefit.  Launch it, and then work on improvements.

I believe that done is better than perfect

Contrary to my initial prejudices, I now feel strongly that done really is better than perfect. There are few things more frustrating than when people say that they will do things and never finish them. Procrastination and delay are anything but signs of perfection.

Real perfection is not holding off on committing to our work; it is committing to delivering better again, and again, and again. It is relentless forward progress!

If we want to create a better world, build successful businesses or just fulfill our own potential, we need to have the confidence to ship our work, as early and as often as possible. When we embrace this philosophy, we not only get more done, but we make things better faster.

If you believe in progress, stop delaying. Finish something and launch it.