The Perfection Trap

In the past few years I’ve been amazed at how many software startups get caught up in the Perfection Trap.  It’s a condition that occurs when a startup that is engineering focused has engineering leadership that has a fear of releasing a product that is less than perfect.  The reasons for this fear aren’t always apparent.  But for whatever the reasons, the Perfection Trap stops the organization from getting what could be a very vibrant solution into the market.  If the product can’t reach a shippable state, it can’t be launched.  No launch, no revenue. 

The first step is to recognize and acknowledge that the Perfection Trap is afflicting the organization.  This is easy to identify:

  • Ship dates are constantly slipping
  • New features creep into the first release
  • Engineering hides side projects that aren’t relevant to the product
  • It is the consuming issue in the organization

Fixing the Perfection Trap can be challenging.  This isn’t a condition that afflicts large companies.  We’ve seen it happen in very early stage startups with just a handful of employees.  What can you do?  If you are the CEO, either you are enabling this condition by allowing it to continue or you are the cause of it.  You have to acknowledge that no product will be perfect.  Ever.  And, adding features only increases complexity and the likelihood of problems.  Finally, you’ll get more kudos from investors for shipping a product that is less than perfect than potentially killing your company waiting for the illusive, perfect product.

To fix the Perfection Trap you need to look at some of the root causes:

1.  Inexperienced engineering leadership.  Engineering leaders that are new to the role may not have the experience of developing and shipping a viable commercial product.  Their egos may be preventing them from asking for help and they’re making it up as they go. 

2.  Previous failure.  This form of leader has experienced a significant failure, whether her own doing or due to other factors.  The need to “make it right” this time is overshadowing her good judgement.

3.  No sense of urgency.  An absense of sense of urgency is a very serious but common root cause.  If there isn’t a consequence of not shipping, what’s the big deal?

4.  Wrong skill set.  Make sure you have the right people, at the right time, for the right reasons in the organization.

5.  Target market is unclear.  If your target market is not easily identifiable you run the risk have layering feature on top of feature.

6.  Feature Assumption.  Assuming you know what features are needed in the product without validating those assumptions in the market can result in building features that have zero value to your buyers.

It may be wise to bring in someone from outside your organization to help in identifying if the Perfection Trap is affecting your organization and what steps may be required to get it back on track.

David Daniels

David Daniels


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