The Power of Perfection

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“If you become widely successful because you do everything right, you’re doomed.”

So said
Clayton Christensen, academic, author, and authority on “disruptive innovation” whom I heard speak last week on the state of healthcare in our nation. While I indeed share many of his concerns about our healthcare system, the above comment at the beginning of his presentation was what loomed in my mind at the time and ever since.

Our drive to “get it right” is fueled by a confusion between excellence and perfection. I can’t tell you how many times I hear talented and highly trained PhD professionals working at the lab bench comment on the potential value of an 80/20% solution. Yet seldom is that deemed adequate, either by research professionals or management. Despite the rhetoric, the “line” doesn’t play. Why?

As individuals we’re reluctant to attend to a root cause – the need we acquired as individuals, somewhere along the way, to be “perfect” in order to be accepted, recognized, loved. I can “hear” clients thinking, “Don’t go psychological on me!” However, such personality traits, multiplied many times over in a given organization, become embedded in the culture. We are more productive when we don’t undermine ourselves and our projects with the unrecognized power of perfection. At least I am.

To know the difference between excellence and perfection is to understand what it means to be human.

  • Mark Solien

    Aloha Steve,

    I’m happy to see you back on your blog.

    The point you have addressed is quite an important one and it is one of the keys to making progress individually and collectively. I have found that it is particularly important when working on issues where the membership of the group has significantly different ideologies. The rule for progress in this instance is “perfection is the enemy of the good”.

    Mark Solien

  • It seems to me that many strive to “get it right” in the workplace mostly because of our fear of “getting it wrong”. After all, isn’t it better to produce nothing than to produce failure? Doing nothing will draw much less attention than doing it wrong. And in an era where companies are shedding jobs, I think a lot of us would rather error on the side of not being noticed for our unremarkable results as opposed to being noticed for our errors.

    We’ve all heard that the enemy of great is good enough. I think we as a society are riding along at good enough. Perhaps leaders should take note: show by example that imperfection is OK and that 100% of nothing is far worse that 80% of something.
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