The Perfect Project Manager

Posted on December 30, 2009 by

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Do perfectionists make good Project Managers? Surely there are perfectionists out there who are good project managers and there are perfectionists out there who are bad project managers. But does the trait of perfectionism naturally mesh well with the demands of managing projects? I am a perfectionist, and I’ve been told in the workplace that it’s a strength because people can trust my work, and others have said it’s a disease that must be treated!

Perfectionists are people who believe that perfection is obtainable, and that’s what they must do. Different psychologists have divided perfectionists into categories. There is a healthy brand of perfectionism which can spur people on to produce stellar work results. But perfectionism can also be maladaptive when people believe that any work that is not absolutely perfect is completely worthless and a reflection of their self-worth.

One of the evils in project management is Gold Plating—adding bells and whistles when this extra effort is no longer adding value. The perfectionist may be especially prone to adding extras that enhance aesthetics but do not affect function. Anybody else out there spend too much time searching for the perfect images for a PowerPoint® presentation? Psychology Today states “because they equate their self-worth with flawless performance, perfectionists often get hung up on meaningless details and spend more time on projects than is necessary” (Perfectionism: Impossible Dream published May 01, 1995). Whereas an area such as Six Sigma seems to be designed by perfectionists for perfectionists (no more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities), project management places more emphasis on getting things done.

Psychology Today also reported that perfectionists have a tendency to cover up their errors to maintain their super-human self-image, so they are poorly suited to work in risky environments where errors must be shared immediately (Perfectionism: Impossible Dream published May 01, 1995). Interestingly, the Project Management Institute’s Code of Ethics specifically states that mistakes must be admitted and ownership taken “2.2.4 When we make errors or omissions, we take ownership and make corrections promptly” which suggests that being open about mistakes is particularly important to project management success.

So here are three suggestions to fellow perfectionists who manage projects:

1. Recognize that your ability to envision stellar results and your drive to do exceptional work are indeed strengths that can benefit you as a project manager.

2. Ask yourself frequently, “is what I’m doing adding value? What’s the cost/benefit ratio here?” There have been times I have wanted many people to proof a report I wrote so that the final version has no typos. But at some point, how much time and money is reasonable to spend to find one more little typo?

3. As hard as it is, share your mistakes quickly and work towards a solution. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you make mistakes—learn from them. James Russell Lowell said that “Mishaps are like knives, that either serve us or cut us, as we grasp them by the blade or the handle.”