Voltaire is attributed with the aphorism “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
You’ve heard others say, “Ready, fire, aim.”
I say, “Messy success is better than perfect mediocrity.”
And while you may be nodding your head in agreement with one or more of these statements, it doesn’t take long to think, “yes, but what about quality and getting it right and the need for processes and standardization?”
Which leads to equally compelling words like:
“If you have time to do it twice, you have time to do it right the first time.”
Ford’s now famous slogan “Quality is Job 1.”
… I could go on and give you more reasons to nod your head at this apparently opposite idea.
There is truth in both – to strive for perfection, to work towards 6 Sigma quality and to get it exactly right – and there is value in taking action, knowing you may make some mistakes but having something out in the world that might work and you can definitely learn from.
The world is a complex place, isn’t it?
So how do we balance the striving for perfection – the ready aim fire!, vs. the need for action and progress, the ready fire aim?
We balance it based on our goals and values – and we balance it situationally and within boundaries.
Let me give you some examples.
Values and Goals
On my team this year we have three core principles – three words that are guiding our work – Implementation, Experience, Relationship.
The first – implementation is all about getting things done, trying things, moving forward faster, and being willing to make mistakes. That is part of what allows us to serve more Customers, serve Customers better and learn faster.
The third word, Relationship is about building those relationshops – within our team, with colleagues, with potential partners, and with Customers and Clients. Of course a key in building relationships is building trust. If you we are constantly making mistakes how can we build trust?
We must live with, work with and produce with this tension, and given that Implementation is the first value, we know we may tell Customers sometimes that we screwed up – in the pursuit of something better for them.
If I were a brain surgeon, I would be very aware of checklists, protocol, procedure and I’d want to make sure I got it correct, right? (If you were my patient you’d want to know that was my focus), and yet, if no doctor ever tried a new version of the procedure, experimented with doing something different, would we advance our ability to treat people with problems requiring brain surgery?
Boundaries mean we don’t allow for mistakes on a willy-nilly basis, but that we have controls and backup plans. Boundaries however don’t mean we don’t innovate, don’t try or aren’t willing to make a mistake.
Do I think that excellence is a good goal, that 6 Sigma, and more historically Quality Improvment efforts, are important for organizations?
Of course I do.
Taking those ideas too far, in the wrong context – striving for perfection, as if it were a place that can always be reached, can be crippling, because it leads us to slower cycle times, less risk, fewer mistakes and no action. In my words – perfect mediocrity.
As a leader we must see the balance between the goal of quality and the value of trying something. The exact balance you find will be defined perhaps by the type of business you are in, and the goals and values of your organization.
For me, I’ll take messy success.
While I know that sometimes, the item, project or idea is important enough that we will slow down a little more, double check our work, market test it a bit more, or consult others for a new perspective – but our first goal, our first inclination, will be to fire, not to keep aiming. I’ll be ok if we miss a period, recognize we need a version 2 of the product, and know that we will occasionally have to say we are sorry – as long as we are advancing, as long as we are trying, as long as we are learning.
I balance these by focusing on excellence, not perfection. As Michael J. Fox wrote, “I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”
In the end, for me, messy success is about continually striving for excellence, and leaving perfection to someone more capable.
As a leader I urge you to think about this balance for yourself. I urge you to consider the decisions big and small that you are making and see if they are in alignment with your goals and values.
Decide how messy you can handle your success – and challenge yourself to make sure you aren’t squelching the action and ideas by striving for perfection.