Perfectionism in the Workplace: The Thunderdome Effect
Updated: Feb 8, 2022
Running this site is hard work. I'm trying to put together a SWOT for Guildmaster, think of our strategy (inbound content marketing seems like a swell idea), all while juggling following up with potential leads for coaching and consulting.
I try to practice the three seashells: have one purpose-driven project, have one autonomy-driven project, and have one mastery-driven project. This, combined with a WIP limit from Kanban, helps me feel fulfilled with the work and not overwhelmed.
But I noticed a suspicious pattern. Every day, I'd see a new opportunity that piqued my interest. Interest is good; I'd say - doing work that's exciting builds engagement and energy. I should probably switch gears away from lower priority stuff and follow the interest.
Then I'd get knee-deep in it and lose interest. Well, John, I'd say to myself (did you know referring to yourself in the third person is associated with a 3% increase in productivity? No? Oh, probably because I just made it up), you need to finish this work. It's important.
Did you see what just happened? I declared something important not because it was but as a way to ensure I stayed working on it. Man, my manager sure is a jerk.
So I'd squeeze a few more days working on the project, it increasingly becoming a grind and depressing. I'd put off any more interesting work - my second seashell - until I'd 'earned it' with my current obligations.
Suppose I managed to either finish or give up and switch gears and pursue the next exciting thing. In that case, I'd do it until I lost interest, suddenly make it first seashell or "required," do it a few more days, then find myself once again apoplectic about how overwhelmed I felt - too many obligations!
I decided to take a break and watch one of my most medium favorite movies.
A Tangent // Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome
If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend you half-heartedly watch it on an airplane some time while reading this blog.
The movie plays like a mishmash of Hook and Waterworld with a preview for Fury Road built into it. It's... it's... it's... okay.
Any movie that reminds you of Waterworld except not on water must be good, right?
What's so interesting, though, is that Mad Max: The Road Warrior (which was the second Mad Max) was pretty good.
The Road Warrior
The Road Warrior was the second installment of the Mad Max franchise and set the mood for Thunderdome and Fury Road vs. the more cornball first installment (which still had some great lines in it).
Released in 1981, it was produced with an estimated budget of $3MM and grossed $23.6MM for a return on investment of roughly 7.9x.
Artistically, it won 8 awards and was nominated for 10. Critically, it's got an IMDB rating of 7.6 and a Metacritic score of 77.
Not too shabby.
It showed the franchise had some legs given how well the marketplace received the original.
Takeaway: Road Warrior, which was the 2nd movie in the series, outperformed the original.
The chain in those handcuffs is high-tensile steel.
Mad Max, the first of the franchise, was similarly successful.
With a budget of just $300k, it grossed just under $8.8MM for a return of roughly 30x, which is enormous but primarily a testament to its tiny budget. The extras, supposedly, were paid in beer—tight constraints.
Artistically it got five award wins and eight nominations. Critically, its IMDB is sitting at 6.9/10, and Metascore is 73.
These aren't bad figures for a breakout hit. If I were a movie exec in 1979, I'd be willing to hand a bigger pile of money to George Miller and ask for another, please, which got us Road Warrior.
Moreover, critically and artistically, Road Warrior did better. It showed the cast and crew were growing and learning from the mistakes and experiences you'd expect.
Takeaway: Mad Max, the first movie, did very well for its budget. Road Warrior, it's the sequel, did even better. This shows growth in the Mad Max team.
Who Runs Bargaintown?
Then comes Thunderdome.
Given a budget of $10MM, it only grossed $36.2MM for a relatively paltry return of 3.62x. While it didn't lose money, it was still less than half the return from Road Warrior and couldn't point to any reason why.
But it wasn't just a financial drop; with critics scores of 6.3/10 on IMDB and only 71 from Metascore, it is the lowest-rated movie in the franchise.
Despite all the pageantry, it only got one award. It tied with the original on nomination count. Even though it had more than 30x the budget and years of experience and learning since the last movie.
It was released in 1985, four years after the Road Warrior, which only was released two years after the original. So it had time to be better, and it had the budget to be better. Same director and headliner - what gives?
Takeaway: Beyond Thunderdome, the third in the franchise, did the worst of all three movies. Why did the franchise not continue to improve?
What's the Thunderdome Effect?
The takeaway is this: The Thunderdome effect.
When given unlimited constraints, quality often goes DOWN, not up
Now, Beyond Thunderdome didn't have unlimited constraints; but it did have a lot of time and a lot of money. Far fewer constraints than the original, it performed worst out of the three.
What's worse, it put the franchise to bed for 20 years. When Fury Road came out, there was a lot left in this story to tell; it's not like they ran out of ideas.
It was that they had too many ideas. And since they had so much budget and time, they could pursue every single one. This made the movie worse when you'd expect "more equals better."
What causes the Thunderdome effect?
Priorities don't just help us get things done faster; they help us get things done better.
An example is our 'cask-strength' resume advice. Every single line of your resume needs to add to the overall impact - if a line is weak, it's watering down the resume. If it can't be improved and isn't crucial, it may be better off being left out. A recruiter's takeaway of you has to do with your average impact, not total.
Similarly, Thunderdome has everything - kids looking for a parental figure, Tina Turner, crazy costumes and sets, car chases. But since it has everything, it never actually selected anything out. Even though every idea got in, the movie's overall quality is low.
When people feel like they can either have it all or refuse to prioritize, you get Thunderdome.
Priorities are good when you have limited resources - but priorities are just as good if you have unlimited resources.
What's this have to do with perfectionism in the workplace?
Back to the Point: Perfectionism
By declaring my autonomy/interest work 'required' as a way to force myself to do it, I was succumbing to perfectionism.
I avoided whether or not I really needed to do the work I was doing. What's worse, I had no Definition of Done. The SWOT analysis I'd been doing led to many valuable artifacts - an investor's deck, two marketing two sheeters, and many fruitful conversations. But I was still going back into my notes and trying to cross every t and dot every i.
It was not value-added.
I felt as if I needed to do it because I'd committed to myself that I would do it. This is how it snuck into the first seashell/purpose category.
Perfectionism means you're never done.
This was a vicious cycle. Without a definition of done, I would never be done with my SWOT. It was going to take more and more time. I was going to keep just putting hours and hours of effort into it.
These are hours I could have put into something with a much higher ROI, but I wasn't making those decisions - instead, I was "punishing" myself for not finishing something impossible.
Perfectionism and the Thunderdome Effect are the Same Things
What's more, these two phenomena are actually the same. Thunderdome had to come out sometime. Even though they weren't forcing any priorities, they weren't having any difficult conversations about what shouldn't be in the movie; eventually, they would piss off their investors.
This is very similar to folks I knew back at school who would work right up until a paper was due, possibly overnight. They weren't making any trade-offs themselves but instead were just using every bit of time allotted.
The best paper was probably produced about 60% of the budgeted time. After that point, every additional change made the writing worse. This gets you a very odd phenomenon where you have additional resources (more time), but when you use them, your product gets worse.
With individuals, it's a bit worse than organizations, as you're often working long nights to try and hit deadlines, and anything you do that tired is probably terrible anyway. So you aren't just watering down your cask strength quality; you're actively adding turpentine.
Perfectionism means you aren't prioritizing.
Perfectionism and the Thunderdome are both aspects of not prioritizing. You're not deciding what's essential, and you aren't choosing when good enough is good enough.
If you have two projects competing for your attention, you might want to WIP them into shape and do one at a time. This is great!
You'll also probably do a little upfront analysis to determine which one is a higher priority. Also great! And you'll be shooting for small, incremental advances. Kudos! You're outperforming most managers out there.
But the Thunderdome still lurks.
At some point, you will have delivered enough value from your first project that it's time to switch, but you won't feel like switching. Switching will make you feel lazy, undisciplined, like you 'never finish anything you commit to.'
You've decided to produce Thunderdome at that point, and the longer you delay that second project, the more value you are destroying.
Perfectionism Isn't Just an Individual Thing.
Perfectionism in the workplace isn't just done by individual human beings: whole organizations often do this. They can actively admit there are other, higher-value projects to work on. Still, they feel they must 'punish' themselves (or the 'guilty' departments) and refuse to relent on commitments.
If you've found yourself in a situation where you have 19 projects assigned to 6 engineers, this may be one cause.
(The other cause is that each of those projects was a political promise by a higher-up to get some sort of compromise from a rival, and other than lip service, that higher-up has no intention of prioritizing the project.)
Every day, another opportunity might arise, which might be far more valuable to switch to than what you're currently doing. The intelligent thing to do is find a good stopping point and switch - but because people are 'frustrated' with the lack of 'doneness' in the current project, instead, they just demand both be done.
This isn't smart since now you're working on something low value and context-switching to something higher value, which would be worse than not switching since you just lose the context-switching labor altogether.
How do you avoid the Thunderdome?
Deadlines and Constraints Can Help...
Well, deadlines and WIP constraints can help if they're reasonable. They can help force prioritization decisions and force conversations. When scope is expanded or a new feature is requested, it's best to try and put things in terms of trade-offs so that the costs are known to the person requesting the feature.
"Sure, we can add that to the project; what feature would you like to cut from our current scope to fit it in?"
Similarly, setting reasonable deadlines can help people who may have perfectionist tendencies to not gold plate things. Though you notice your people need deadlines, it's also best to start coaching them away from perfectionistic tendencies because deadlines hurt.
Deadlines piss off individual contributors, while WIP limits tend to piss off higher-ups.
...But Knowing How to Prioritize Without Them is Even Better.
Someone who needs deadlines doesn't yet understand how to maximize their own ROI per unit of effort or decide on their own what done means. They have to have some external, artificial constraint on them.
This can cause some destructive behaviors - namely, and ironically, overwork and procrastination.
Let's get back to the late term paper - someone uses the deadline as an artificial constraint. They'll work until the deadline, and that's that - they have no idea how to maximize their own return on the effort before then, nor can they figure out what done looks like for that term paper. So they just pull all-nighters. They maximize effort rather than value.
But, well, maybe they think it shouldn't take that long. Or, perhaps there are other papers due sooner. Well, then they put it off - so they're both signing up to work non-stop, but putting this non-stop work off because, after all, they're working non-stop on other term papers with earlier due dates.
So they're constantly tired and often running late, and they blame themselves for procrastinating, but they don't know that their procrastination is due to their lack of knowing what done looks like.
If you had to run a race and had no idea whether you were done, just ran to exhaustion and hoped for a score, wouldn't you put off that race until the last possible minute - if nothing more, to reduce your expected fatigue?
Am I a Perfectionist?
Do you have trouble sticking to habits that might force prioritization conversations - like, you hate checking JIRA or your task list because it will remind you of all the things you committed to? You aren't willing to say no to any of them; you might be dealing with perfectionism.
You might not be as slow as you think you are; you just have a hard time knowing what value looks like, how to maximize it, and frankly, how to give yourself permission to walk away when it's maximized.
You may also have people on the team you manage with these traits - they may appear slow, they may both chafe at (yet require) deadlines to be productive, their work may appear to prioritize the wrong thing.
They can be saved! Talk to them about perfectionism, come up with ways to help them judge whether something is good enough, help them get over the ego-hit of walking away from 'unfinished' work (because it will always be unfinished).
And maybe recommend they watch Thunderdome.
On a plane, half-heartedly, while reading this blog.
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