Perfection is Dumb

There was a speaker we were invited to listen to at my organization. The topic of his speech was perfection, namely, the pursuit of perfection. He believed and wrote a book with the premise that to achieve excellence we must use perfection as the goal. Anything less than aiming for perfection is acceptance of mediocrity. By accepting these lower standards, he believes the organization is going to be less effective when it could be much better. “Practice makes perfect!” was a common theme.

Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes progress. I wish I could credit the author of that statement, but where I heard it escapes my memory. There are times when the goal of perfection is appropriate. Perfection is necessary when there is an almost a singular focus, such as professional athletes and others in very narrow fields. An Olympic sprinter most certainly does not accept 99% as good enough. Golfers strive for the perfect swing, bread-makers aim for the perfect loaf of bread; the list goes on and on. But the vast majority of organizations have way too many tasks to worry about to expect perfection.

The reality that so many of us struggle with is where do we draw the line between perfection and greatness. In addition to this decision, we also must decide what task or core function of the business needs to be focused on to achieve greatness and what can be done “good enough.” The “good enough” tasks are so difficult for leaders and managers to allow or to even acknowledge their existence.

Leaders rarely want to admit “average” into their organizations. But the reality is there isn’t an organization in the world that is great at everything. This is where the leaders of the organization need to look at their core mission and identify all the tasks and processes that go into being great at their core mission. Everything else needs to be done well enough that is doesn’t detract from the greatness.

Take extra care to know how each process affects another. In my experience, many managers have approached training as a formality and only value hands-on training to educate their workforce. Because of this, they have made the argument that training should be a “good enough” task. This is not a good example of a “good enough” task. Training affects the performance of all duties in the organization and being truly great in this area builds a solid foundation for the employee.

The bottom line, decide and communicate the processes that you must be great at for the core purpose of the organization, then decide what level of performance is good enough for the other processes. Be disciplined enough to avoid improving a task or process from 90% to 91% at great effort. The juice is not worth the squeeze in this case; especially if the process isn’t a core process you have identified for greatness.

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