Why Getting It Done Is Often Better Than Getting It Perfect
Although the remark has been attributed to lots of different people, it was Voltaire who first observed (in his Dictionnaire Philosophique, 1764) that “the perfect is the enemy of the good” (Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien). It has become such a common saying that we recite it almost without thinking. And yet some administrators become immobilized by their desire to “get it right.” They don’t want to make a decision until they have all the facts, consult with all the constituencies, and reflect on every option. Certainly gathering insights from the many different kinds of stakeholders we have as academic leaders is an admirable goal. And making rash decisions or getting locked in too soon to a specific course of action can sometimes lead to serious consequences. But there are also plenty of times when administrators have to take action on the basis of whatever information they happen to have at the moment, when doing something is better than doing nothing, and when delaying too long causes a valuable opportunity to be lost.
There’s an expression heard in the movie industry that can be good advice for academic leaders: “We’ll fix it in post.” The idea is that each take doesn’t have to be perfect. There will be many opportunities in postproduction to accommodate a flubbed line, a forgotten gesture, or an imperfect expression. Being excellent doesn’t require you to be perfect, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you can never do anything until you’re sure you can do absolutely everything. There are times when you just have to go ahead and rely on your ability to make midcourse corrections as necessary. If you’re not used to doing that, it can require a dramatic leap of faith the first few times. But, like workaholics who finally take a vacation, those who dither almost always discover that the world doesn’t end and the institution still gets along just fine even when they let go of the reins a little.
In his works The Platinum Rule and The New Art of Managing People, Tony Alessandra distinguishes four major types of personality.
- Thinkers: The “Get It Right” People
- Directors: The “Get It Done” People
- Relaters: The “Get Along” People
- Socializers: The “Get Appreciated” People
While any theory that says “there are only X categories of people in the world” is certain to be overly simplistic, Alessandra’s system does have some value in helping us spot our own excesses. Many academic leaders, trained as careful researchers, value getting it right above all else. They become horrified if they release a report or make a proposal only to hear later, “But weren’t you aware that … ?” They can even become horrified if they catch a typographic error or two in a memo once it’s been released. As a result, gridlock occurs because they never really have all the facts and the final product is never perfect. It’s almost impossible to decide precisely when you’ve got enough information.
It may be heresy to say such a thing, but here’s a seldom-admitted truth of academic leadership: 99 percent of the decisions we need to make don’t have a right answer; they just need an answer. Certainly for issues involving safety, the protection of property, and the long-term reputation or financial security of our programs, an abundance of caution is desirable. Matters of life, limb, and reputation are situations where you really do want to get things right. But even so, a response is often better than waiting for the perfect response. Waiting to resolve a maintenance issue that poses a danger until you can complete a thorough renovation can lead to injuries that might otherwise have been avoided. Delaying a response to a university scandal detailed in the local newspaper until you have all the answers can seem to confirm everyone’s worst suspicions. So, even in a crisis situation, it’s often preferable to act quickly and then, if necessary, “fix it in post.”
That course of action becomes all the more desirable when we’re dealing with fairly routine administrative matters. There’s never going to be a day when every potential flaw has been eliminated from that curriculum proposal, and you’re never going to know all you’d like to know about that potential donor. Effective academic leaders are those who make good efforts quickly rather than flawless efforts eventually, and the sooner new administrators realize this truth, the better they’ll serve their programs.
When we teach our courses, we certainly don’t expect students to refrain from action until they achieve perfection. We urge them to start engaging in conversation even when they know only a few words of a new language, to perform in public well before they’ve mastered their instruments, to conduct experiments while they’re still being introduced to the rudiments of a discipline, and to serve as student teachers even though their techniques are still far from refined. We can take all the leadership training that’s available to us, even earn a doctorate in higher education leadership, and we still won’t know everything we’d like to know about even some of the common administrative tasks. You have to do it to learn how to do it. The best course of action, then, is not to create bigger problems by delaying others who are waiting for our decisions but to go ahead and make the best choices we can, always being sure that, whenever it’s necessary, we later fix it in post.
This article first appeared in Academic Leader on September 1, 2013 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
Alessandra, A.J., & O’Connor, M.J. (1998). The platinum rule. New York: Warner Books.
Alessandra, A.J., & Hunsaker, P.L. (2008). The new art of managing people: Person-to-person skills, guidelines, and techniques every manager needs to guide, direct, and motivate the team. New York, NY: Free Press.
Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.