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Perfect Is the Enemy of . . . Well, Everything

Friendliness with failure can spur innovation. How to ward off perfectionism.
Leadership perfectionism might be stunting innovation in your business.
Photo by Flickr user dailylifeofmojo

“The world doesn’t reward perfection. It rewards productivity. And productivity can only be achieved through imperfection….

“Only by wading through the imperfect can we begin to achieve glimpses of the perfect,” writes author and strategic adviser Peter Bregman in the HBR blog post “How to Escape Perfectionism.” The CEO of Bregman Partners argues that the scientific method of trial and error (emphasis on the latter) yields the greatest innovations from the most motivated teams.

Cases in point: Creative powerhouse Pixar (motto: “Be wrong as fast as you can”) and lab-happy Google, which is unfazed by a 36 percent failure rate on new products.

“Ideas, in a sense, are overrated,” writes Hugo Lindgren in the New York Times. “Of course, you need good ones, but at this point in our supersaturated culture, precious few are so novel that nobody else has ever thought of them before. It’s really about where you take the idea, and how committed you are to solving the endless problems that come up in the execution.”

There’s just one problem: Most CEOs are Type-A perfectionists for whom failure — even the kind you learn from — is psychologically painful. The idea of encouraging mistakes in the name of progress is more than a little profane. For them, we offer these three rules for overcoming the evils of perfectionism from Psych Central.

1. Make up some rules.
Do you tend to self-edit ad nauseam? Give yourself a deadline for submitting documents. Do you obsess over comparative analysis? Prohibit yourself from checking competitors’ websites for the duration of a project. Perfectionism most often leads to procrastination — the archenemy of progress — and your rules should aim to keep things moving along.

2. Acknowledge your mistakes.
No self-flagellation allowed. Instead, make the discussion and dissection of mistakes a routine team activity designed to encourage real-time learning.

3. Sift out the unrealistic expectations.
Be honest with yourself and with your team when narrowing your focus to the deliverables that have both the highest likelihood and the greatest potential impact. Stop wasting time on everything else.



Google Answers. Orkut, Dodgeball, Lively, Wave, Buzz, Nexus One, and Google TV. This is a list of Google’s highest-profile failures over the past decade—flops that are outnumbered 2-to-1 by the company’s market-making successes like AdWords, AdSense, and Maps. But, still, a 36 percent failure rate is nothing to laugh about. Or is it?

“Google is in the business of failure, and it’s quite possible that if it weren’t for these eight fails, the other 14 [successes] wouldn’t have come to be,” writes Harrison Weber on the Next Web. “. . . Google’s experimental nature helps curate new ideas and empowers users to decide what they really want—a very democratic approach that has clearly worked well in the past 12 years.”

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