As a manager, one of the more typical causes of problems encountered is the all too common human desire to be perfect or to perform perfectly. Defaulting to this desire to be and do perfect will encumber the manager, their direct reports, and the organization. It’s my position that the manager is far better off (and far more effective) focusing on striving for doing and being excellent in their and other's performance rather than being perfect. There is more than just a semantic difference between the words perfect and excellent – there is also an energetically experienced difference that can either compel greater performance or stop it altogether.
When striving for perfection there is no room for error. The outcome is black or white. The performance, project, result or objective was either delivered according to specification or it wasn’t. Significantly, none of the traditional measures of perfection will typically include the question “does it work or not” as a major consideration. Rather, the question is implied on the front end and it is then assumed that what we are doing will work if it is perfect. The focus becomes perfection of design, process and/or outcome and not workability.
Functionally speaking, excellence refers to workability. Something is excellent when it performs (it works) in a way that creates minimal unintended consequences. It’s not perfect, yet is functions extremely well – it gets the job done.
The advantage to focusing on excellence is that it keeps the action moving forward – a major concern in most organizations and most definitely a focus of managements activities. Essentially, what we are doing when focusing on excellence is creating an environment for our people to live into their outcome rather than live up to an arbitrary standard of what the elements creating that outcome should be. As a manager it is useful to be familiar with some of the qualitative differences between these two performance standards.
Perfection has some extremely strong dynamics associated with it. Some are so strong that they can literally shift the focus away from performance and can stop movement altogether. Chief amongst these are the following:
- Focus on protection of a valued self image where there is no room for error
- A lifestyle that operates out of fear (i.e., not being good enough, not measuring up, being “found out”, etc.)
- Major risks are either avoided or highly calculated
- Obsession with a need to control and be “right”
- Critical judgment of self and others
- Scarcity of choices … do it by “the book” or do it “my way and to my standards”
- Focus on protecting what I’ve already got – playing not to lose vs. playing to win
- Focus on mechanism vs. creativity (although creativity is often given as the rationale)
- Primarily concerned about “looking good” … a “me” focus
- Single minded focus on the outcome only (is it perfect)
- Classic win/lose approach to relationships (i.e., “I’m right and you’re wrong”)
As an alternative, a focus on excellence is experienced as having the following attributes:
- Willingness (even a desire) to learn from mistakes. Mistakes, while maybe not welcome, are also not seen as something to be avoided…they are recognized as part of the learning process
- Action based on excitement, energy, fun, enthusiasm
- Willingness to take challenging risks
- People operate from clarity of purpose and empowerment
- Readily operating from acceptance and appreciation of differences
- Utilizing creativity and acknowledging the abundance of choice
- Dual focus on the journey as well as the results (“how” we do is as important as “what” we do)
- Concern for the greater good … an inclusionary “we” focus
- Establishes win/win based outcomes
The question for the manager is which of the two approaches is likely to be more generative? It is my position that anything the manager can do to encourage an excellence based approach to work, to the organization’s movement toward its outcomes and to living in general will ultimately produce results faster and results that are far more sustainable and welcome. For a manager to be able to draw their organization’s attention to the differences between the two approaches opens the door to far richer conversations and performance than may otherwise be possible.