“I don’t know a perfect person. I only know flawed people who are still worth loving.”

John Green


Ok. While perfection may be one of the shittiest conversations people have with themselves, perfection (or doing things 100% perfect) is actually an interesting discussion. Its interesting because while perfection is a shit objective, trying to do something well, in fact, well, perfectly, is an admirable objective. Problems arise when you begin thinking perfection isn’t an objective, but rather attainable  — at all time in all situations.

THAT is one of the crazy things affecting business today. The seemingly relentless pursuit, and demand, for perfection.

Or. Maybe let’s say “get it 100% right all the time.”

hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm … Let’s think about that one for a moment.

It creates an excuse to procrastinate in decision-making.

It creates a fear of mistakes.

It actually creates a lower “standard” (i.e., ‘let’s make the objective so we achieve perfection and can claim perfection success’ versus ‘let’s aim for the fucking best that we can do if we max out and we may make some mistakes along the way but we outperformed those assholes who claimed 100% perfection by a mile.’)

It creates an entire generation of managers who look backwards instead of forward (i.e., lets re-explore every detail to see why we made that one mistake so we can refine our process so that we can achieve 100% perfection).

It creates a lot of angst and unnecessary pressure (on the wrong things).

Maybe the worst?

Think about what we are teaching (encouraging) our young people to do?

Do fewer things that could possibly end in less than perfection.

Take fewer chances.

Believe perfect mediocrity is better than flawed excellence or brilliance.

(now THAT was a scary sentence to write)

Yup. That’s what happens.

So. Maybe, if instead of perfection, we encourage doing your best. Striving to be better.

Stuff like that. Everybody is so scared of mistakes our version of today’s perfection is “what is the lowest bar I can achieve and guarantee no mistakes”.

I think that is what we have come to.

Oh. And add to that last thought:”Well. The only way we could make a mistake (or not be perfect) is because there is a flaw in the system.” (and then you invest so much energy reviewing an existing system or analyzing peoples behavior or tearing apart what was exactly done that you have … well. … expended a shit load of energy)

Look. I am not suggesting that mistakes shouldn’t be reviewed to insure they weren’t mistakes of laziness or stupidity. But at some point you have to believe in your systems and process and people and say “my perfection is a 95% success”. Huh?  What do I mean by that?  Well. If that 5% consists of some part honest human error and another part people just trying shit as improvement, well, that is ok. In fact, that may be perfect.

Oh. And not all perfections are created equal.

I don’t encourage spectacular errors, but, I have to tell ya, when one of my group has made one and it was because they were going 120% like a bull in a china shop a part of me wants to pat them on the back and say “awesome. Let’s do it again. Cause next time it just may be spectacular. Not a spectacular error.”


The next struggle with perfection.

Let’s call this perfection procrastination.

“The man who insists upon seeing with perfect clearness before he decides never decides.” 

Henri Frederic Amiel, Swiss Philosopher

The sometimes (seemingly) unattainable goal of perfection freezes you. You don’t even get started. At its worst it is “theft.” Perfection has stolen action. This means by focusing on perfection you actually end up settling for less or, even worse, nothing (or maybe even worse … less than the best  …). And it’s all because you cannot envision having the time or being able to invest the energy to complete the task or objective perfectly … so you decide to not even do it. Theoretically we are creating an entire generation of “non-finishers.”

“I went for years not finishing anything because, of course, when you finish something you get judged.”

Erica Jong

This is like a domino effect. If no one finishes then no one learns the satisfaction (or peace of mind) of job well done. Or what Julia Louise Woodruff called “out of the strain of doing, into the peace of done.”

Ok. Let’s be clear. While I am ranting about perfection procrastination and what this whole fear of ‘less than perfect’ steals from us. It is a good thing to aspire for perfection as long as you maintain balance (of which we in the business world seem to becoming worse at over the years rather than better). I am suggesting there is a difference between aiming toward perfection and doing perfection. Because I do believe aiming at it is always a good thing.

“Aim at perfection in everything, though in most things it is unattainable. However, they who aim at it, and persevere, will come much nearer to it than those whose laziness and despondency make them give it up as unattainable.”

Lord Chesterfield

But. All that said I do believe what leaders (and some parents I believe) often forget is that perfection is a moving target. In life and, yes, in business.

“When you aim for perfection, you discover it’s a moving target.”

Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury

Anyway. There does seem to be this wacky belief in the business world that perfection is NOT a moving target. It is something unstill and unmoving and a set & solid objective we are all running toward. I will suggest this all ties back to the whole ‘measurement’ and ‘standards’ game we all seem to be stuck playing. The infamous … “well, how do we know if we are doing it well if we don’t measure it?”

I wish we could just assume Red’s management style (and he did win a shitload of NBA titles):

“Just do what you do best.”

Red Auerbach

But. This whole perfection thing makes it tough. We won an NBA championship, but we lost 20 games. And 10 games were really close and we could have lost them. We weren’t perfect. C’mon. I know I am being silly but can’t you hear this in the business world?

Yes. We completed the project on objective. But remember the 2 mistakes we made along the way. What can we do to make it go perfectly next time (even though exactly replicating any project is almost impossible … oh … it’s that moving target thing … sigh).

Anyway. I wrote this awhile back. And rereading it I am not sure I would change a word.

I didn’t realize I was writing about how perfection is killing business but in a way I was.

“All you can really ask is for someone to do the best they possibly can.”

Anonymous (and me)

I have said this a zillion times. I have no clue who I stole it from. But if I could beat this into the head of every leader in the world I would be willing to staple the piece of paper with the quote on it to my forehead. Sometimes we ask so much of our people it is amazing. And, yes, many people do not know what they are truly capable of until they are pushed to aim for something seemingly impossible. I know I am a pretty demanding leader. I set an incredibly high bar for my teams. But in the end all I ask is that they do their best.

And if it isn’t enough then we can say we didn’t succeed for lack of trying. And sometimes that’s as good as it gets.

And sometimes that is when I have been proudest of people. Ask the best of people and I believe most people will surprise you by doing a little better.

Here is what I know. Perfection, in general, is a shit concept and a shit objective. I also know perfection is a dangerous concept in today’s business world. And, maybe even worse, it is a dangerous to the lessons we are teaching the next generation of leaders.

Choose your ‘perfection’ wisely.


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Written by Bruce