The Worst Mistake Perfectionists Make
I worked recently with a company that's perfect: Headquarters immaculate, lawns pristine, everyone turns up punctually for meetings with the right paperwork.
That was the problem.
The perfectionism of the company conveyed many messages, chief of which was: don't make mistakes. And that in turn produced three mission-critical problems:
1. Silence. No one spoke about anything unless it was already on an agenda. This kept everyone focused but much of what was going on in peoples' heads stayed there. Even very powerful people found the atmosphere intimidating and constraining--meaning they could do very little with the power that they had. The upshot of this was that senior people didn't really know what was going on (no one would tell them) and junior people just felt anxious.
2. Waste. Vast amounts of energy were expended on things that weren't important. Meetings were endlessly confirmed; any typo meant a new print order. All that polish channeled energy and attention to things that scarcely mattered.
3. Lack of innovation. Ideas aren't born perfect. They start off vague and rough, evolving into something ugly and awful before becoming useful and valuable. In a perfect culture, they cannot be born.
This culture derived from a business whose products did have to be perfect; anything less and they could be dangerous. So the perfectionism was not without its value--it had simply invaded everything the company did.
We often talk about the need to break down silos in organizations. But this was a company that needed to put its perfectionism into a silo all of its own--and leave it there.
Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.