Personal Perspective: A small yard job made me think of a common work problem.

By Victor Lipman

A small yard job yesterday reminded me of a basic aspect of how we approach tasks in the workplace.

Over the years a ponderosa pine in my yard had accumulated in its branches numerous large clumps of dead pine needles, held together by sap from the tree. These dry-clumped needles were of no value; they could become a pleasant home for a raccoon or, worse still, a fire hazard ignited by a stray spark. They needed to come down.

So I got from my garage a ladder, a saw, and a pole with a hook on the end.

It was a job I’d been deliberately ignoring for about a year now. There was a reason for that. At 71, I’m not as steady on a ladder as I was, say, 50 years ago. Or for that matter five years ago.

The Better Part of Valor

Saw in hand, I took three steps up the ladder to a point where I could reach two limbs whose removal I thought would allow most of the clumps of dry needles to fall. The sawing went OK; I was a touch shaky on the ladder but not too bad, and as the limbs fell to the ground some good-sized needle clumps fell with them.

But then as I looked up I quickly realized my situation: Even after the limbs’ removal there remained quite a few clumps of dry needles nestled in slightly higher branches, more than I expected there would be. I went down, got my hooked pole, went back three steps up the ladder, reached up, loosened, and was able to knock down a couple of very small clumps. From my current height on the ladder, it would be hard for me to get more.

Then, with about half the needles down—half of my intended job done—I started to think about things. At first, I was aggravated. I’d hoped to finish the whole job today. But this would require my climbing higher up the ladder and reaching out farther to saw than I felt comfortable doing.

Then I realized: No doubt my work today wasn’t perfect, but at least I’d made progress. Half the offending needles were on the ground (and I’d avoided injury). Discretion being the better part of valor, I’d call a young man who has a tree business and who has done pruning work for some of our neighbors. He could finish the job.

Truth be told, I wasn’t in love with the idea of paying someone else for something I used to be able to do myself.

Oh well, so be it.

Immediately I was at peace with the decision.

Value of Small Wins

Progress, not perfection: How often in the business world had I thought about this very issue? For in a large corporation where projects are often long, complex, and involve many, many people, the going is often slow. There’s much opportunity for progress and little opportunity for perfection.

While perfectionism can at times be a powerful engine for accomplishment, it can also be a fast road to frustration.

In a high-pressure business environment, managers who constantly demand perfection tend to alienate employees.

Similarly, employees who need everything to be perfect tend to alienate themselves.

I always liked the old business saying, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”

Good managers appreciate small wins and recognize that important daily progress often comes in small increments.

Good managers recognize that too much perfection can slow things down and lead to more imperfect results.

Sometimes it’s fine to be satisfied with plain old progress—in an office or a tree.

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