The Swamp of Perfection

“Nobody can do this as well as I can!” – every entrepreneur, ever

“Never mind. I’ll just do it myself!!!” – every human who thinks they’re saving time

Early in my career as a fitness coach, a mentor told me to work more ON my business and less IN my business.

Since I had no time in the day, I decided to hire another coach to run the 6am group at my gym. I thought, “She can run the group. I’ll show up at the same time, and do my homework while she’s coaching.”

Logically, this made sense. But in practice, here’s what actually happened:

The group started a few minutes late. I paced around, trying to make eye contact with the coach, getting aggravated. But I was determined to let her run the group.

Then some members of the group were talking while the coach was talking. I wanted to step in and yell at them to give her the same attention they gave me.

Then she demonstrated an exercise in an imperfect way. She gave the clients a cue that didn’t really make sense to me.

Within twenty minutes, I was in the mix, “helping” her coach better. I wasn’t doing anything to grow my business, because I was so focused on controlling what happened IN my business.

After the group, I went down the list of problems. I tried to soften the blow of my feedback, but there were so many details to fix that she went away feeling totally beaten.

Here’s what I should have done, and how you can avoid my mistakes.

Small businesses progress in stages: systemization, optimization, growth, and scale.

The first real pitfall of most entrepreneurs is the “swamp of perfection” – the need to have every staff person do it exactly as the owner would. This is a dangerous trap that can actually stop a small business from growing.

The ‘swamp of perfection’ looks like:

  • micromanagement –
  • constant oversight (I once watched our cleaner working through our security cameras–don’t do that.)
  • recurring enforcement of “rules” for clients and staff
  • high staff churn
  • growing frustration and a desire to be a “one-man shop”

Here’s how to get through the Swamp of Perfection.

  1. Get your business out of your head. Record how you do everything – from opening the door in the morning to closing it at night.
    This is a constant process, so don’t try to remember everything all at once. Keep an open notebook and add to it whenever you do something “new”.
  2. Shoot for a C+ level to start. Your staff should follow your recorded systems perfectly, but still deliver only “pretty well” to start. Your first attempt at systemization won’t be perfect. This is an iterative process, and you’ll get better over time.
  3. Set up an evaluation process. Improve each system at each evaluation. This is the start of the move into “optimization”.

Your first systems won’t be perfect. But consistency is the first step. Your clients and staff must be able to deliver in a predictable way, even if that method isn’t perfect.

In the above example, I should have:

  1. Recorded a step-by-step process to running a group class, including an instruction to start exactly on time;
  2. Reviewed the coach’s performance after their first group; then after a week; then after a month; and then quarterly forever. During these reviews, I should have picked one thing to improve at a time, instead of beating them over the head with a laundry basket of problems;
  3. Updated the process when the coach eventually did something better than my original version.

Your business will never be perfect. And even when it is, you’ll want to tweak it.

That’s okay, as long as you’re recording your base standard; teaching your staff to deliver to that level every time; and raising the standard through evaluation and improvement. It’s critical to include evaluation in this process, because “better” doesn’t just happen without pruning the “less good”.

The ‘swamp of perfection’ is a mental one. You get through it by playing an infinite game: seeking constant improvement and adopting a growth mindset.

Eventually, I learned that every repetition of a system in my business is just practice for the next repetition. We began to seek “better” instead of “perfect”. After a few months, my group classes were far better than the classes I ran myself.

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