Too many of us want the perfect deliverable. The problem is, we don't have unlimited budgets or schedules. These two factors were listed as the Number One challenge for project managers in Zweig White & Associates' 1999 Project Management Survey of A/E/P & Environmental Consulting Firms.

How can we change this? The solution lies in providing excellence versus perfection. In this case, we define "excellence" as reaching the highest quality possible with the resources provided by both the firm and the client. The perfect project, on the other hand, is completed with no defects or deficiencies. It may be "perfect"...but it's also impossible to accomplish. However, if our goals are extremely high and we apply good project management techniques, we can and will achieve excellence.

I asked Glen Ferguson, principal at the 65-person geotechnical firm GeoSystems (Lenexa, Kansas), how a firm can achieve excellence without perfection. Ferguson, a 25-year veteran of the geotechnical field, offered these thoughts:

Avoid minor change One thing Ferguson has learned over the years is not to change the basic fundamentals of a project if you're striving for excellence. Most clients request minor changes. The problem is that minor changes, over the life of a 6- to 12-month project, add up to a major problem later. Because it is hard to assess the effect of each change at the time it occurs, Ferguson recommends sticking to the original work plan. Another reason to avoid minor changes is that basic engineering has been proven over the years. It doesn't need to be reinvented.

Don't waste time. For the deliverable to be excellent, a designer must begin a project immediately after it is assigned so that the schedule doesn't overwhelm him or her. Ferguson believes that it is necessary to define the problems and think through all possible solutions during the planning phase. Draw on your experiences to identify potential solutions on the present project. Ask for second opinions and have others look at your work-other people can provide a refreshing new perspective.

Visualize the results. Study the budget and schedule and visualize how the project will look once it is designed or constructed. This is a technique Ferguson learned from a college professor. It helped him learn the process of producing a finished product instead of getting bogged down in small details and losing sight of the "Big Picture." The result was that he developed a good imagination and a practical approach to problem solving.

"It's the difference between being theoretical versus practical," Ferguson says.

Provide a relaxed work environment. Ferguson has learned that the more relaxed and professional the work environment, the easier it is for him and his team to stay focused, move from one project then the next, and produce high-quality work that he defines as excellent. Ingredients for a relaxed work environment include a competent staff, good leadership, and the recognition that everyone is human. Expectations can remain high, he says, but there is no pressure to be perfect. In this kind of environment, employees can learn from their mistakes and move on without worrying about living up to an impossible standard.

There are no perfect firms. If there were, they wouldn't be in business long! By delivering a perfect product every time, they would spend too much time and effort on every project-and in doing so would be the perfect money-losing machines.

Don't focus on perfection; focus on being the best.