Flawless Execution…or Go for Greatness

In my banking days, one our most closely held values was flawless execution. It may not have been printed up in an official list of values – but I can tell you this: it was a very real expectation. In reality, flawless execution is corporate-speak for perfectionism. For many years, I was a good “soldier’ and bought in to this ridiculousness. Mind you, I did not have responsibility to print accurate bank statements. Perfection is a good thing in keeping track of people’s money! However, it was insane to make flawless execution an expectation for a group that had a strategic imperative to create new things. If something must be perfect the first time, then you better do the same thing you’ve always done – actually, you better do it slightly smaller– to guarantee it goes flawlessly. There is a saying that perfection is the enemy of good. I will take it several steps further:

Perfection is the enemy of creativity, innovation and business survival.It was in that group that I first tested the waters of experimentation. We were charged with taking a year long training program down to 10 weeks. That’s an 80% reduction in time devoted to learning. Oh, and the trainees were expected to be as competent in 10 weeks as they had been in the 50 week program from before. Innovation was definitely needed here! It was a tall order and gave me an opening to set different expectations around flawless execution. It wasn’t easy, but our team decided to test and risk mistakes instead of trying to be perfect. We set expectations for the first program to be at 50% of what was possible. We would take the best aspects forward so that by the third program, we would have created a program that was 5 times more potent than the old program. Yikes! With a lot of courage, conflict and discussion, our team was able to set aside the culture of perfection. There were a LOT of less than perfect moments, and yet we succeeded. We developed a significantly better program that was not flawlessly executed the first time – in fact was never perfect. It just kept getting better. We made learning the number one priority, and everything else was done at par. (See Distinction and When to Say No for more on discerning what types of work can be done to “satisfice” vs higher standards.)

You would have thought that I took that lesson with me, especially when I started learning to become an artist. Nope. I am a very slow learner. At first, I would look at the blank paper (I was painting in watercolor at that time), and decide to create a masterpiece. At the first mistake, I would get so frustrated, I often walked away. I really believed that every blank sheet of paper had to become a masterpiece. If not, I didn’t deserve to get another blank piece of paper. Then one day, I remembered my lesson from the bank about testing instead of perfecting. Seen through that lens, I decided it was just paint and paper. So what if it had to go in the trash can? (I tell more about this story in The Secret to Better.) The most important thing I learned in painting has been this: You have to get through the “bad” paintings to get to the great paintings. The same is true of almost any endeavor where you are creating something new.

The question is this: Are you willing to go through the “bad stuff” (phases of performing below your standards) to get to the “good stuff” (really great performance)?I tested this question again when I decided to learn pottery. My early attempts were truly awful. Yet I kept going back to the wheel, slowly learning and frequently using the “F” word. I must have made 500 mugs before I had one that earned its way into my kitchen cabinet. Making mugs is notoriously difficult, because newbie potters like me leave too much clay in the bottom, making for a heavy mug. Few people want to drink out of a heavy mug. Many, many of the mugs I gave away in those early days became pencil holders.Had I started pottery with the attitude of flawless execution, I would still be making teeny, tiny pinch pots, because that was the only thing I was competent to do at the beginning. Gratefully, art is slowly curing me of my perfectionist streak. It’s unleashing the freedom to test and experiment. And that freedom shows up in every domain, from work, to writing, to skiing and to friendships.Where do you seek perfection? In what ways does wanting to flawlessly execute paralyze you? Where is one place you could experiment with doing something a little poorly now for the sake of being better tomorrow?Perfectionism will still sometimes reach out and grab me by the throat. Anytime I find myself stuck or paralyzed, I look for those fingers on my throat and gently pry them away. My wish for you is to unleash your creativity and allow yourself the freedom to make it (whatever it is) better!

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Ciaran Doyle
4/3/2017, 8:20:05 PMI loved the thinking around moving from flawless execution to focused improvement over time. From my experience its the reality of what goes on in most corporate life. The challenge I see is being able to have the conversation of the shift in emphasis without appearing to trespass on the corporate culture. Lynn Carnes
4/17/2017, 8:58:04 AMCouldn’t agree more. The only way I’ve found to avoid trespassing on the corporate culture is to leverage something the culture wants even more than what I appear to “taking away.” In my training situation, they really wanted to save money so I kept the numbers in front of them. Marjo Rankin
4/16/2017, 9:26:29 PMI find the need for perfection interfering with my attempts to learn to play the piano at my advanced age! The first lessons seem (and sound) painfully elementary, yet they are not easy to perfect! I get frustrated thinking I should be able to conquer this and move on quickly. And that messes with my mind when I don’t! Lynn Carnes
4/17/2017, 9:02:53 AMWhen I took piano lessons in my late 30’s, I told my instructor that I was going to play a particular piece “perfectly”. He is a professional musician, and he just laughed at me, saying it couldn’t be done. “Of course it could”, I said “Just look at you. I’ve never heard you make a mistake.” Then he told me the secret of all professional musicians. They all make mistakes. He said “we have just learned to play through them.” I’ve tried to remember that when I’m making mistakes!