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Keeping a balance between pragmatism and perfectionism​

A few avenues to explore​

Marakoudja has four core values that permeate everything we do: pragmatism, passion, transparency and perseverance. In this article I’ll be looking at pragmatism, which is an extremely useful attitude to adopt whenever you find yourself having to manage change.

Each episode of change will bring opposing forces into play. And without pragmatism, nothing can be achieved.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about pragmatism (translated from the French-language article):

“Pragmatism is an American school of philosophy. According to founder Charles Sanders Peirce, an expression’s meaning lies in its practical consequences. ...] In everyday terms, pragmatism in English and French refers simply to the ability to adapt to the constraints of reality, or the idea that the end-goal of intelligence is to know how to act, not gain knowledge. […]”. According to the pragmatic outlook, to think something means identifying all its practical implications, because for Peirce and his disciples, only its implications give meaning to the object being thought of. Ideas thus become simple – but necessary – instruments of thought. In principle, there is no such thing as truth. Rather it is revealed progressively through experiences.”

What are the hindrances to pragmatism?

Here’s what I often see happening during projects. These hindrances can affect me just as much they affect other people.

The tireless search for perfection:

As the saying goes, “the best is the enemy of the good”. Then there’s the Pareto principle, according to which 80% of results can be obtained with just 20% of efforts.

“The Pareto principle is an empirical principle, i.e. it's ‘often’ encountered in practice, give or take a few approximations on the numbers 80 and 20."[1]

A pragmatic attitude is to know when to stop once a goal has been achieved. This is one of the foundations underpinning agile methods. Deliver a usable product quickly, then improve it over time. That which is superfluous – hypothetical cases that occur less than 20% of the time – will be dealt with last, if at all.

"Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing flawlessly." 

Robert H. Schuler


Processes exist so that we don’t have unceasingly to reinvent the wheel. They also heighten our efficiency. There’s nothing wrong with processes if used as a list of best practices for cases that crop up all the time, as this avoids having to ask the question each time about how to do something. However, processes can also be a straitjacket: we get to the point where things are only done because the process requires it to be done. The action in itself has zero value.

How to stay pragmatic in these situations?

When faced with perfectionism, the best policy is listening the other people’s feedback. If you hear remarks along the lines of “Aren't you overdoing it a little bit there?” or if you feel others are reluctant to follow you, take a break and ask yourself if it’s really necessary to drive up the performance to this level of perfection.

A frequent problem in companies that collect information on the use of their employees' time is a desire for too much precision. If each time we have to input our working time it takes us 5 minutes to find the right category, sub-category and sub-sub-category, most likely the data entered will not be reliable. Once again, the best is the enemy of the good.

When process is the issue at hand, I suggest defining the usual cases – those that occur 80% of the time. The remaining 20% are rarer. You can simply let the team decide which procedure to follow, as long as they document the reasons for departing from the usual process.

As a result, your processes will be much lighter. Applying the Pareto principle, we can posit that documenting exceptions (i.e. those cases occurring 20% of the time) could take up 80% of the pages in our process handbook.

For example, for answering calls in a customer service department, the process could describe the usual discussion flow of the interview and provide sample answers to the questions asked in 80% of cases. When it comes to more specific but less frequent questions, the process may simply state that the customer should be referred to a level-two person, who will then use their expertise to identify the problem and try to resolve it.

So to sum up, sticking to a pragmatic approach means:

- asking oneself what value is being added to the end-results by our actions

- putting in place processes that give precise details on how to deal with common cases adn tell us what to do when excepts arise.

What about you? Do you have similar or different experiences? Let me know, I'll be happy to discuss it with you!

Artwork : Mélanie Bénard Tremblay, 2019, © Marakoudja.


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