Overcoming Perfectionism

Posted on August 17, 2020 by Jay Harrington

Most lawyers are meticulous, detail-oriented, and analytic. Their “Type-A” perfectionism serves them well in the practice of law, but is often a hindrance when it comes to business development.

While the consequences of being imperfect in your legal work product can be harsh, imperfectionism is something you have to embrace in order to market and build a practice. You must take risks, go out on limbs, and take action without perfect knowledge of the outcome. When you’re practicing law, your job is to de-risk situations for your client. When you’re building a practice, you must act entrepreneurially and take calculated risks on your own behalf.

That’s not to say that planning should be overlooked. Much of the ground this book has covered so far has addressed the importance of planning. It’s critical to determine your direction before you start taking action. In an ideal world, lawyers setting out to build a practice would get ready (cast a vision), aim (set a goal and craft a plan), and fire (take action). In the real world, too many lawyers spend so much time aiming that they never fire at the target. They plan endlessly and never take action.

Successful people across different domains have a clear idea of what they want before they start taking action, but their tolerance for excessive planning is low. They have a bias toward action. They use the feedback they receive—good or bad—from the actions they take to determine what they’ll do next. They view their plans as dynamic, subject to change based on the results of their actions, rather than set in stone. If you believe your plan must be perfect before you can take action, you never will.

When the Wright brothers set out to build an airplane, they faced stiff competition and seemingly insurmountable odds. Among their competitors was Samuel Pierpont Langley, who was well-connected with leaders in business and government. He was awarded a $50,000 grant from the U.S. War Department to build an airplane. He assembled a talented team and had access to technology and resources. The Wright brothers, on the other hand, were working with a ragtag team out of a small bicycle shop in North Carolina.

The Wright brothers ultimately won the race to build a working airplane because they prioritized action over planning. Unlike their competitors, who would spend enormous amounts of time and sums of money planning test flights, the Wright brothers tested frequently. After a failed flight, they would go back to their workshop, make tweaks, and test the plane again. Their competitors worked mostly in their heads. The Wright brothers took action and eventually took to the skies. Instead of endlessly aiming, they fired over and over, adjusting their approach along the way.

The Wright brothers succeeded because they learned and applied lessons learned from taking action. Their well-financed, well-connected competitors failed because they tried to eliminate risk by creating a more perfect plan.

Best-selling author and renowned business strategist Jim Collins urges prioritization of action over perpetual planning. In his book, Good by Choice, Collins explains that businesses (like people) have limited time and resources to work with. He asks readers to conjure a picture of themselves at sea, with a hostile vessel bearing down on their ship. There is a limited supply of ammunition and gunpowder available to fight off the attackers. A direct hit from a big cannonball is required to fend off the threat. But if panic sets in and a big cannonball is fired right away, it’s likely to miss because there is no way to dial-in the correct aim. Most importantly, if a cannonball is fired first, there will be no gunpowder left for reloading.

If a smaller bullet is fired first, it is still likely to miss. But there will be plenty of gunpowder left to fire another one. Then another. With each successive shot, the aim improves until finally it’s right on target. Through the experience of firing bullets, and dialing-in the aim, the remaining gunpowder can be used to fire off a big cannonball that hits its mark.

As you set out to market your practice and develop business, don’t get caught up in endless cycles of planning. Conversely, when you do take action, don’t go all-in on an approach without experimenting first. Take small actions, even imperfect ones, and assess the results. You’ll learn from your successes, and, yes, your failures, and be able to refine your plan for the next set of actions you take. If you’re the type of person who can’t stop “aiming,” try a “Ready, fire, aim!” approach instead.



Publisher's Note:  This is the second in a series of excerpts we are publishing from Jay Harrington's new book, The Productivity Pivot.  Click here for more information about Jay and to purchase a copy of the book.    


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