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Being a Perfectionist

DetailsLast week we finally finished some financial reporting but it took a while because…we go stuck in the details. You know how when you look at some accounting data, you spot an error and you fix your report to make it more correct, and then you spot another error in accounting so your fix your report again, …and then you find another error lurking over there so you fix your report yet again, and….

That was what we were doing last week. But with accounting, there is always going to be errors. During close, people are rushed, accountants receive bad information or no information, and after long hours staring at the screen, numbers start to swim. So there will always be errors – that’s just a fact of life. So how do you handle this without going crazy? This is a really tough thing, especially if you are a perfectionist type or extremely detailed oriented and can’t let things go. My boss told me she kept finding errors and it just never stopped so she finally had to say, internally to herself, need to cut this. I know that feeling very well. I am very grateful she came to that realization because a lot of people don’t.

Last week I was sort of going down the same path with trying my hardest to arrive at some correct numbers when the vendor’s report failed us. It took me a week to go through roughly 20 units and figure out what the numbers should be, using those very same bad reports plus some others. By Friday, I had to let 2 units go because I was never going to figure it out, at least not by the end of Friday. Besides, my boss surprised me when she said she didn’t care about certain numbers because “they” never really looked at it.

So how can you produce top notch work and yet avoid going down a rat hole? I don’t really have the answer but here are some of my ideas:

  • Apply the 80/20 Pareto rule and keep reminding yourself to apply it. Figure out what will give you the biggest bang for your effort and then determine if the rest will matter.
  • In accounting, think about the materiality factor. And keep reminding yourself: “Is this really material that it could change somebody’s mind, if given the information?” Never stop reminding yourself.
  • If you face multiple areas of your work or team in chaos, then your first impulse is likely to start fixing one problem and to spend all of your time fixing that problem until it is perfect before moving on to the next. However, the other problems just fester and get worse. You can’t solve all of the problems at once but you can’t spend all of your time on just one problem. In this situation, you probably have to denote a minimum level of “quality” for each of the problem areas and then let it go. For this time. During the next cycle, start from your minimum level and improve it. In each go round, you set processes to improve and to prevent backsliding. This was pretty much the method I used when I first arrived at SAIC and faced a program with a multitude of problems.

In short, these are all ways of thinking about your problems and asking yourself how perfect your work really has to be. You may not be producing top notch work if you are trying to be perfect.

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