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They say the quest for perfection is never ending. And that is because, as our perceptions change, the gap between where we are and where we want to be also changes. While we chase that elusive ‘perfect’ state, we fall behind the race and many a times, even fail to make a start, fearing failure and shame.

We did not walk perfectly on the first attempt nor did we deliver a speech the moment we said our first word. When we learnt to walk, learnt to talk, learnt to ride the bike, we persevered and tried again and again until we got it right. We also did not crawl, walk, hop and skip at the same time. Through trial and error, we learnt sports, new skills and experienced many adventures.

I remember an experiment we did in school. The aim was to neutralise an acid, mainly using an acid, an alkali and litmus papers, to get a better understanding of the pH value concept. We would add an alkaline solution to the acid, drop by drop, testing each time with the litmus paper. If the litmus paper turned red, the solution was still acidic. If the litmus paper turned blue, the solution was alkaline. The litmus colour we were looking for was purple, to prove that the solution was now neutral and had a pH value of 7.

It was one of those trial and error experiments, one that not only taught us chemistry, but also taught us patience and perseverance. Taking small samples, some of us would add too many drops of alkali and others would be over-cautious and add too little alkali. No one actually neutralised the acid and got the perfect purple litmus at one go. We did the experiment several times in that lesson, and with each iteration, our confidence and understanding grew as we got closer to making the solution neutral.

This incremental and iterative process of learning and working towards goals is very popular in agile software delivery, where a large goal is decomposed into smaller manageable and shippable chunks. An error or a mistake with smaller goals is also smaller, but the learning is bigger, because we can apply it immediately in the next iteration. Like in my litmus experiment, if adding 10ml of alkali to the acid made the solution alkaline, I would try 8ml the next time.

But, this method is not restricted to laboratories and to software delivery alone. It can be applied to all our personal goals and challenges, where it is entirely in our gift to break it down into smaller and manageable chunks that are easier to focus on and help us make progress, in each iteration.

So, rather than having a goal called ‘Stop eating chocolate’ and not making a start because it is such an unappealing goal, if our goal was ‘Say no to chocolate once a day’, we would find it acceptable and would commit to working towards it. And soon, we could try and say ‘no’ two times a day and eventually get to a state where we would be saying ‘no’ to chocolate nearly all the time!

Rather than having a goal called ‘lose 10kgs in 3 months’ and ending up with more to lose at the end of the 3 months, we could break the goal down to ‘exercise for 15 minutes every day’ and ‘eat one less doughnut every week’. These are small goals, do not need a huge investment in terms of time or effort; and because they are easy to tick off, we feel rejuvenated to take on more. If this works, we increase the exercise schedule to 20 minutes per day. And if eating fewer doughnuts does not help with the weight loss, we can always create a new goal. We may not lose all 10kgs in 3 months, but with smaller and manageable goals, we can be sure that not only will we not put on more weight, we can even chip away at the fat.

It is very satisfying when we achieve our goals and that success motivates us intrinsically to work harder towards attaining other goals. The quest for perfection remains elusive, but no one can stop us from getting closer to it, incrementally and iteratively.

‘I may not be there yet, but I’m closer than I was yesterday.’ – Unknown

For more information on making the transition to an agile culture, read Hema Iyer’s book The ‘I’ in Agile: A Personal Journey.

About the Author:

Hema Iyer is an IT professional who has been engaged in the different aspects of software delivery, for over 20 years. She has worked in projects in India, Singapore, Malaysia and UK in various capacities.

Her life goals are simple – to learn something new every day, to stay healthy and to sleep well, every night.

She lives in South London, with her husband and two lovely children.