Over-Processing: the Enemy of Productive Work

Get clear on the standard required. Stop wasting precious time polishing and worrying.

By Sam Robinson

Have you ever been to a restaurant wanting a simple meal and instead got more (even a lot more) than you wanted? It may be a huge serving size when large would have been fine. Free olives that were only picked at. Extra flourishes on the table? 

It’s called over-processing and it’s the enemy of efficient and productive work. 

Let’s keep on with the food theme. This is an analogy. All models are wrong, some are useful – I think this one’s useful. 

You’re making a casserole at home and you are someone who follows a recipe. You go to the fridge to grab some ginger but discover there’s no ginger. But the recipe calls for ginger! What do you do? 

  1. Find someone to blame: I told him to buy the ginger when he went shopping! Why doesn’t he ever listen to me?! This whole recipe is ruined… I may as well chuck it all out.
  2. Forget ginger, I’ll substitute. Garlic will probably work just as well. If no garlic, I’ll leave it out and think of something else. It’ll still be food.
  3. Go to the shops immediately. If this recipe calls for ginger, I’m going to use ginger no matter what. 

Some of us are guilty of waiting for perfect conditions before acting. It’s a trap. Leaders barely ever have perfect conditions (some would say never). Are you absolutely 100% right now? Probably not. I know I’m not (my back is aching for example). Are you still a functioning human? Yes!

Perfectionism and over-processing are linked in my mind. They can come from the same place. I’ve constructed a near impregnable an idea of what good looks like and my energy is going to go to creating it. I can’t fail. I won’t fail, won’t let that happen. 

How to know if this is you?

Let me ask you a question. At work, if you’re assigned a task, how do you know if the end output that’s expected is the equivalent of a pub meal or a banquet for a member of the royal family? 

If you’re not sure, you probably need to do more experiments. You need to prototype good – not perfect – but good. If you try to test perfect with someone, they’re going to say “it’s great!” But you’ve lost, too. That’s because you’ve spent who knows how many hours working away to deliver value that no one’s going to use. 

I got two emails this week. They were both submissions for the same assessment task but from two different people. 

The first email was one line: here’s my task guys, hope you like it. And attached was a two page document – it described everything I needed and did the job. The formatting wasn’t perfect, and I could spot a few spelling and grammar mistakes. But it accomplished what it set out to accomplish. It was a pub meal.

The second email was a little longer: here’s my task, I’m really worried about it, did it hit the mark? I really hope so as I worked very hard at it. And attached was a 10 page report of pure gold. It had perfect grammar and punctuation, and the formatting was top class. The content was good too, don’t get me wrong. It was at the sort of standard documents get to before they’re nervously dispatched to the Minister of something or other by departmental officials. It was a royal banquet. 

Who do you think is making the deadlines? Who is more stressed and anxious?

Life is busy enough. There’s no time for banquets. Get clear on the standard required. Stop wasting precious time polishing and worrying. Also, if you’re experiencing perfectionism that feels compulsive, maladaptive, and tied into your self-worth, that’s something to note as potentially being symptomatic of a far more serious issue – so please check in with yourself and take care of yourself, seeking support if you need it.

Don’t let perfect get in the way of perfectly serviceable. 

At LKS Quaero, we support our clients to productively organise work. For more information, visit us at lksquaero.com or follow us on LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter.