Perfectionism vs Pragmastism: Career Implications

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This is a debate I often see in technical circles, mostly between technicians and their less technical managers or stakeholders. It’s a debate that often leads to conflict or a reduction in morale or motivation in each party. It has career implications too; as technical leaders aiming to build a career, its something we need to be aware of.

Perfectionism is a belief that perfection can and should be attained. It is a belief that there is only one truth. In its severest form, a perfectionist believes that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. Pragmatism, on the other hand, is a belief that there are many truths, often in conflict, and that a balance can be attained to honor each truth.

My experience of working in IT with technical specialists is that this community often sees a technical issue as black or white, i.e. it is perfect or totally dismissible. In my early career working on technical infrastructures, I exhibited that too. I was a perfectionist. Only the best laid out solution that worked perfectly in all instances was acceptable to me. It’s perhaps because technical professionals are very invested in their subject matter, and that there is a real perception that a compromise on the quality of deliverables in their chosen subject reflects badly on them. However, as I’ve worked my way through the ranks and become more ‘commercial’, I realised that a perfect state is often very difficult to achieve, and later still, in many cases shouldn’t be achieved. Let me illustrate.

A perfect system that will never fail and always meet its purpose is an ideal, but one that in most cases is very costly to achieve. Unless you remove all human error in all layers of a solution, it won’t meet this ideal. This should apply to safety systems in space shuttles, but we all know that doesn’t happen either. To seek this perfection is to seek it at any cost. As a business, it’s very rare that ‘any cost’ is a viable business justification. Stockholders and Execs don’t subscribe to this, so business decisions are made which create constraints like a budget.
So it’s pragmatism that in this context is what most frequently wins out, whether you like it or not. Projects have to the best with the budget and resources it has. Now as a technical professional on a project or operation, you have a choice as to accept this position or not, and you will exhibit it in your behaviour. Those that do will do what they can to make the outcome as near-perfect as they can, and may indeed build a case for extra budget or resources – this is still pragmatism. But those that don’t tend to moan about it or engineer the situation so they can say ‘I told you so!’ The latter state of mind is very dangerous for career builders. Senior managers don’t want to hear it, particularly as they (more often than not) are aware of the compromises that have been made.

Of course any senior manager worth their salt should listen to grave concerns about compromises, to manage risks or learn of innovations for a better way of doing it. But once a decision has been laid out in concrete, it should be accepted by all and the best made of it.

In terms of career implications, managers and leaders will almost always be working with a compromise. As a budding manager and leader, demonstrating that you accept this is positive, as is a demonstration that one has the skills and tools to manage the situation. Basic Project Management instruments come into play; maintaining a Risk Log and Issue Log are some examples of how managers will consciously manage information and base decisions from. Leaders will work with the people to overcome their concerns and motivate workers to do their best in the knowledge that the risks are known and will be mitigated. These are positive responses to compromise. Indeed these are positive responses to further your career.

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2 thoughts on “Perfectionism vs Pragmastism: Career Implications”

  1. Let me be blunt: I’m not a perfectionist, I’m a pragmatist. If something works, I do it that way until there’s a practical reason to change it.

    I’m that way both by choice and by force of circumstances. I work from the house, I have a wife, a nineteen year old daughter and a two year old son. My wife is currently pregnant with our third child. I only work about twenty hours a week and in that time have to support more than a dozen software applications. In addition I’m involved in a ministry work that occupies about 80 hours a month of my time.

    I’m a man who can’t waste time on perfection unless it’s absolutely required. But the reality is that perfection is almost never required for success. In fact, perfection very often gets in the way of success! Why do I say that?

    Find out in my latest blog post at:

  2. @luckydogonline – Nice comment! Where I sit on the continuum between perfection and pragmatism will be down to the consequences of failure. I’d be sure to be more ‘perfect’ in my choice of safety-seat for my child than I would be in choosing a restaurant to eat that night!

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