Perfectionism in business and innovation

Why perfectionism is a foe of creativity and innovation

Perfectionists, be warned: This article isn’t perfect. I started it around midnight a few days ago when I got the idea for it. I continued working on it in a coffee shop the next morning, and completed it in between two client meetings, all the while knowing it wouldn’t be article. This raises an interesting question: is there something like “the perfect article?” Or “the perfect product?” Today, let’s talk about the perfectionism in business and innovation, and how the urge for perfection may stop you from being truly creative, innovative and productive.

What is perfection?

Perfection can be defined as the condition, state or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects; or it can be the action or process of improving something until it is faultless or as faultless as possible. If this article were perfect, I would have written it —and my editor would have honed it— in faultless English using perfect words to express the subject of this article in perfectly logical order of discussion points. Had my editor and I strived for the perfect article, this spot would be empty now, as we both were still busy writing and editing the masterpiece.

So, what’s wrong with striving for perfection?

Perfectionism is the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection, and as the noted the American novelist John Updike noted: “Perfectionism is the enemy of creation.” Why?

  • Perfectionism breaks your creative flow while your creating something new, be it a new column or a new product. Instead of simply letting your thoughts flow, your urge for perfection breaks the creative flow by continuously judging your output and dismissing it as “not yet perfect”. Perfectionism emphasizes critiquing over creating.
  • Perfectionism slows you down also when it comes to shipping a new product. While you continue trying to optimize that last 0.5% you need to make your product a masterpiece, faster competitors start shipping their new products and capture the market with a functional, 99.5%-ready product.
  • Perfectionism is expensive. It drives up your costs as you require ever more resources (materials, people, capital) as you continue working to perfect the last tiny bits and pieces.
  • Perfectionism locks you into a tunnel. Because you focus so much on perfecting what you’ve been working on for a long time, you fail to notice that in the meantime, the world has moved on and changed: a new technology has emerged; consumer preferences have changed; and the economy has moved into a new cycle. In short, the product your work on perfecting doesn’t resonate with the market anymore.

To sum up, in the highly dynamic modern business environment of the early 21st century, perfectionism drives you out of business sooner rather than later.

Why are many business leaders and managers perfectionists?

Perfectionists are usually people with an overinflated sense of self-importance. Such people have a very vocal inner critic who relentlessly demands perfection from the team and themselves. If you tend to be a perfectionist, then resolve today to begin ignoring your ego’s demands for perfection. Set yourself and your team free from your critical, perfectionistic ego. Simply be yourself — it boosts your creative energy, and speeds up and amplifies your creative outputs.

How to overcome the urge for perfectionism?

Here are four tips that help you producing more creative outputs and meaningful products by fighting your urge for perfection:

  1. First create, then critique: Instantly judging what you create is like driving with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake — you lurch forward at a slow, awkward pace. Better focus on creating first (and suspend judgment). Later on, you can spend time critiquing your creation by asking, “What’s wrong with it?”
  2. Strive for excellence, not perfection: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence,” said the famous American football coach Vince Lombardi. You can still move towards excellence and let go of your need for perfection without dropping your standards. Don’t insist on perfect products that are 100% faultless, but also don’t settle for mediocre products that are “good enough”. Aim for excellence, which are excellent products that are 95-99% perfect.
  3. Do rapid prototyping and iterate based on user feedback: Nature is full of apparently imperfect yet functional and well- working designs. Nature constantly improves and refines its present designs through the evolutionary process of feedback as well as trial and error. Follow the success principles of nature by practicing rapid prototyping: Build simple prototypes of your products, then show them to people to get critical feedback; quickly iterate and build new prototype versions that reflect your learnings; release great-working, but not yet “perfect” beta-solutions into the market; finally, quickly fix any unresolved bugs based on user feedback. As a result, you speed up your product development cycle and increase the overall number of creative outputs.
  4. Do your best within a target date: Set yourself a challenging, yet possible deadline to complete a functional, well-acceptable first version of a new product. Tame your inner critic who demands perfection by following this maxim: “I herewith resolve to produce the best possible output that I can come up with by the deadline.” If time is really tight, aim to get 95% of deliverables 95% ready.

Conclusion: Let’s face it: The “perfect product” (or perfect creative output) doesn’t exist. What’s perfect today won’t be perfect tomorrow. So, relax and start striving for excellence, not perfection. Or as Salvator Dali put it: “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.

Do you want to learn how to tame the inner perfectionist in you? Contact us to find out how Genius Journey, our creative leadership method, may help you to create more and critique less.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2016. This article was published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on 15 September 2016.