Joe Johnson, Ph.D.
Entrepreneur. Investor. Startup Expert.
Most of us want things to be “just right,” from our morning cup of coffee to the budget reports we’re handed by staff. However, that need for things to be a certain way – for perfection – can present a problem.
The Problem With ‘Perfect’
When we set our sights on perfection as though it were the only acceptable result, we’re setting the bar much higher than necessary. Of course, while there are instances when perfectionism is expected (aviation, spaceflight, surgery, etc.), there are also plenty of situations when we need to overcome that urge in order to accomplish the goal at hand.
As with so many things in life, there isn’t only one sort of perfectionism. The main distinguishing characteristic of a perfectionist is that they hold themselves (and others) not merely to a high standard but to an impossibly high standard. Those evincing the latter trait will frequently cause negative consequences for all involved, as attaining that standard is too often both exceedingly difficult and unrealistic. Alternatively, when perfectionism comes in the form of dedication to consistent effort and producing one’s best work, that’s generally a less problematic condition for an entrepreneur.
Some of the effects of perfectionism capable of tanking a startup:
When we focus on every little thing and need each one to be just so, we add additional stress to our lives – whether it’s the way we require our offices to be arranged or the manner in which we write our blog posts. While we may idolize famous perfectionists (Steve Jobs, et al.), their lives (and their employees’ lives) would have been far more pleasant if they had learned to let go of certain obsessions. Stress can lead to both negative work environments and health problems.
Too often, projects are abandoned because they aren’t seen as perfect or the creator has decided that they will never live up to expectations. Similarly, some projects remain in the idea stage and never come to fruition entirely due to fear of failure. The idea is that, because the project will not be perfect, it’s not a worthwhile endeavor. While perfectionism isn’t the only cause of this problem, it’s one of the primary reasons for discontent cited by would-be entrepreneurs.
Creativity is a fickle mistress at the best of times. Add a tendency toward perfectionism and it may go into hiding entirely. When we’re too focused on forcing life to conform with our expectations, we limit our ability to consider new ideas and to explore possibilities. There are few guaranteed outcomes in life – requiring those outcomes to be perfect needlessly narrows both our options and results.
Issues With Others
When we feel as though everything needs to be done in a particular manner, we may behave in one of two ways. Either we hold others accountable to our expectations or we fail to delegate and feel that we must do everything ourselves. The former can create stress and disharmony in a company when the expectations are out of line with reality. The latter can leave us bogged down and distract our attention from those tasks that truly require it.
The most fundamental nature of life – and business – is change. To accommodate those fluctuations, it’s important to be flexible. Perfectionism can impart a sort of action-limiting rigidity. That paralysis can induce stress and lead someone to claim failure when they’ve merely encountered an obstacle. As any entrepreneur knows, the road to success is littered with obstacles. Adversity is a way of life in business; knowing how to accept and overcome those challenges – and learning something useful from them along the way – is necessary in order to build a successful enterprise. If we’re hampered by a need to meet impossibly high standards, then we’re creating unnecessary roadblocks for ourselves and making it more difficult to succeed.
When we’re focused on completing a task just so or not at all, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Moving forward with a project, presenting it to an audience, and seeking feedback can enable us to better interact with both our target market and business associates.
You can’t hit the bullseye 100% of the time. Whether there’s an issue with the bow, the arrow, or the target, there will always be some factors out of your control. A good entrepreneur understands this and does their best to mitigate risk. One effective way of doing so is to make every effort to minimize perfectionism. While attention to detail is important, recognizing when we’ve gone too far and are expecting too much is important for both our own wellbeing and that of our project.
If your perfectionism is hindering your business, it’s important to discover exactly where it’s slowing progress and to identify the effects it’s having.
Perfectionism may lead you to accept too much work, to procrastinate beginning certain projects, to continue changing a product or service rather than releasing it, to hesitate to accept particular risks the outcome of which can’t be predicted, and to consistently force others to redo their work.
This sort of perfectionism can lead to an uncomfortable work environment where team members are overstressed and may hesitate to share their work. There may be a high level of turnover or a difficulty in filling positions due to a sense that nobody ever meets the perceived standard. This can inhibit growth and innovation.
Perfectionism can be viewed as comprising a scale. For some individuals, being aware of a tendency toward perfectionism is sufficient to help them actively correct their urges and prevail. For others, perfectionism can be a pathological drive which may inhibit them completely unless they seek professional help. Understanding how deeply your perfectionism runs is essential for learning to live with it. For the former, the lean method contains a valuable idea to help in resisting the siren call of ‘perfect.’
The Value of the MVP
Flying in the face of the popular aphorism, “If you have to do something, then do it right,” is the idea of the minimally viable product (MVP). Part of the lean methodology, the MVP is about getting to market quickly and then fixing/updating your product or service once you’ve received real customer feedback. Rather than slaving away with the idea of the perfect gadget in mind, the lean methodology propounds the concept of offering a good gadget and then working from there. The benefit of this isn’t solely that you’ll receive useful feedback, but that you’ll learn quickly and inexpensively whether your idea is viable. Rather than investing large amounts of time, capital, and effort in the vacuum of endless development, you can test your product or service – for real – in the market. Waiting until something is perfect is nearly always too long. While the product or service is being modified until it mirrors the image in one’s imagination, competitors may be entering the market with a similar offering. Alternatively, the development time may be wasted entirely if the product or service doesn’t have a market. This failure can be difficult to swallow after having expended resources in pursuing perfection and may result in an entrepreneur being gunshy in the future.
Of course, for startups, failure is always a possibility. Reframing failure as an opportunity to learn is essential for future success. For those who seek perfection, it’s necessary to accept the reality of the startup world and find an acceptable middle ground which enables them to succeed in their chosen market. Not everyone’s perfectionism is the same. As you address your need for things to be just so, consider your options for living with it and invest any necessary time in yourself. Doing so will only benefit your current and future business efforts.
About the Author
Dr. Joe Johnson is an entrepreneur, investor, and startup expert. He is the founder and principal of GoodField Investments and the GoodField Foundation (www.GoodField.com).
Joe has a Ph.D. in Entrepreneurial Leadership and an MBA. He is the author of the upcoming book on The Science of Why Most Entrepreneurs Fail and Some Succeed.
Most importantly, he is the incredibly blessed husband of one amazing wife and father of six wonderful children. He resides in Bradenton, Florida. For more information on Dr. Johnson and his work, go to www.JoeJohnson.com.