Do Your Rules Prevent You From Solving Problems?

We all have rules. Some of our rules arose from our childhoods. “Look both ways before crossing the street,” is an example of what might be a good rule. Of course, it depends which way you look first, depending on the country you’re in, right?

Our rules can help us live productive lives. They can help us solve problems. We use “rules of thumb” when we solve problems.

I often suggest project rules of thumb such as timeboxing to help people contain work. I often advocate rolling wave planning, depending on the kind of project. It makes sense to plan a little, do a little work, and then replan. Of course, if you only have a four-week project, I might not advocate that, at least not if the rolling wave is two weeks long.  I might suggest something else, depending on the risks or the unknowns in the project.

But your rules don’t always work for you. Sometimes your rules work against you. This is also known as “your greatest strength can be your greatest weakness.”

Have you ever seen a perfection rule? A perfection rule is when someone says, “I must be perfect for this thing. If I can’t be perfect, I won’t do it. I’ll postpone it until it’s perfect.”

We all have perfection rules. They become visible, sometimes in sort-of funny ways.

I tell this story in Manage Your Job Search: I knew someone looking for a job. She needed a photo on her LinkedIn profile. We discussed this in January. I saw her again in April. Did she have a photo? No. What prevented her from adding her picture? She’s a better photographer than her friends, but her hardware wasn’t not working. What did she need for hardware? A new disk drive. When will she get a new disk drive? In a few more weeks.

In the meantime, her lack of a photo and her perfection rule sabotaged her job search. People with photos are seven times more likely to be picked for interviews than those with no photos. My colleague spent four months being not picked because of her perfection rules. A good-enough picture would have been better than no picture. The thing she wanted (a job) was something she prevented herself from getting because of her perfection rule, at least some of the time.

Perfection rules and other rules trip us all the time. But we can make these rules work for us.

If you think you have a perfection rule, you can transform that rule into a guide this way:

1. State the rule precisely:

 I must always do a perfect job.

2. Change must to can. Is it true? Ask yourself. Verify.

I can always do a perfect job.

3. Change always to sometimes. Is it true? Ask yourself. Verify.

I can sometimes do a perfect job.

4. Select three or more circumstances when you can follow the guide.

I can do a perfect job when:

  • I feel the job is important.
  • I have sufficient time.
  • The nature of the work permits it.

Perfection rules, rules about problems prevent us from seeing problems.

It’s the same thing in code or tests. “I know the problem isn’t there.” You don’t look there. Of course, that’s where the problem is, right?

Our rules normally help us. The trick is to see when they don’t. Perfection rules are a double-edged sword. They help us perform great work. The prevent us see when good enough might get the job done, especially for now.

Recognize when you have a perfection rule and it prevents you from solving a problem. A good tip is if you are stuck and have been for a while. Your perfection rule might be kicking in.

Especially with problem solving, you have to know which problem you are solving. Do you need to solve this problem perfectly? Or, do you need to do something good enough now, and maybe iterate for later?

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