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Perfection is the Enemy of Strategy Execution

This weekend, I heard the following thoughts from a very smart man: “If you wait for everything to be perfect, you’ll wait forever. The best thing is to make the best of what you’ve got right now” (thanks J. Layton). Now, these ideas were shared in relation to dealing with the challenges we all face in our personal lives, however, it turns out that these words of wisdom are also good advice for organizations and our business/work lives as well.

The fact is that many companies spend too much time waiting for, or trying to create, the perfect business conditions before they execute a project, introduce an innovative product or service, or enter a new, emerging market before the rest of their competitors do. While the result may be risk minimization (which, quite frequently, is the real driver of this kind of behavior in business), it almost always also means lower levels of innovation, missed opportunities and markets, and sub-optimized business performance results.

Here are the three situations in business where, in my experience, striving for perfection actually gets in the way of taking action, executing strategy, and doing business successfully.

1. Analyzing Your Business Options to Death

How data driven is your organization’s strategic planning process? Does it become an exercise in exhausting your historical financial review and forecasting abilities and a frenzy of scenario planning and “war games”?

While I fully support the use of data in the planning process, I am not a big fan of investing a great deal of time and effort in extensive forecasting and scenario planning work. The fact is that these types of activities can drag strategic planning out into a six month plus exercise and they give business leaders the false sense of security that comes with thinking that they have identified and played out all the possible business options and have selected the best option for the foreseeable future. I have to wonder – is this even possible these days? Just look at how fast the business environment is changing and how many “black swans” (read more about black swan theory here) seem to be out there. Given the realities of our current business situation, it no longer works to try to predict all the possible business scenarios and the appropriate responses to them, AND to take a long time to do it – the business environment will have changed by the time you have formulated your plan.

The better way is to:

● Gather some data but focus on assembling and leveraging the collective wisdom of your people, customers, business partners, and other stakeholders to understand the current and future internal and external operating environments and create a realistic and relevant strategic plan given what you know now. Doing this allows you to put a good, not perfect, and workable plan together quickly.

● Begin executing your business strategy and collect information (data + intelligence) about how your business and business strategy are performing. This includes important internal and external indicators of performance. Let your measurement set be an early warning system that alerts you when something is changing in your business environment that might require an adjustment or change in business strategy.

● Develop the organizational skills and infrastructure required to be agile in the face of change. Focus on creating: the listening posts you need to hear the drumbeats of change as early as possible; mechanisms for identifying business opportunities and feeding this important information into your organization’s awareness so that the required conversations and dialogue can take place across the company; and the organizational capacity to change and re-align with new priorities quickly and effectively.

Rather than building the capacity to predict the future flawlessly, successful organizations today have the ability to assess the business environment quickly and put a good plan in place, detect important changes and opportunities as early as possible, and have robust mechanisms in place that allow them to adjust direction effortlessly, helping them react appropriately to threats when they happen and take advantage of emerging opportunities when desired.

2. Agonizing over Business Decisions

How does the decision-making process work in your organization? Does it take a long time to make decisions? Is the process focused on eliminating risk without also considering the strategic value of possible options? Focusing decision-making on narrow parameters that revolve around selecting a course of action that minimizes or eliminates risk can be a serious impediment to action in many companies.

Once a strategic plan and roadmap for action is in place, it is critical to work the plan, make informed decisions, and then take imperfect action. Imperfect action means not waiting until you have the 100% proven action or risk-free solution at hand – if you waited for these conditions, your business would never move forward. In addition, in most cases, perfection isn’t required for success in most business environments because there is “play” in the system that produces desirable business results. Creating a work environment where taking informed, imperfect action is acceptable (and supported) goes a long way to ensuring that your organization truly works our strategic plan.

Companies that are serious about building a dedication to imperfect action into their organizational culture will actually adopt a core value that talks about this and describes what it looks like in action. Here is an example of what the definition of that core value might look like:

“Bias for Action”/”Action-Oriented”: We are committed to taking intelligent and disciplined but imperfect action in business situations. While we always think before we act, we don’t get caught up in “analysis paralysis”. We know that it is better to take action, implement a solution that is 80% right, and then improve it as we go than it is to wait to implement a perfect solution. We have a bias for putting our business priorities into action because we know that, at the end of the day, actually DOING what we think is right for the short and long term success of our company is the only chance we have of actually achieving our desired business results.

Including the idea of imperfect action as one of your organization’s core values helps ensure that it becomes a strategic priority and that business processes and leaders’ management style are aligned with it. This is the best way to ensure that employees and managers avoid analysis paralysis when business decisions are required.

3. Striving for Zero Errors

Does your business REALLY need to be 99.99966% error free (six sigma)? If you‘re doing or producing things that have life or death consequences then the answer is probably yes and striving for perfection might be for you. You see, I’m good with my local hospital striving for zero MRSA and C. Diff infections or my airline striving for a record of zero accidents. For the rest of us though, this level of perfection is probably not necessary for business success and striving for it doesn’t add noticeable or significant value to your customers and stakeholders or to your organization.

Many companies have jumped on the quality bandwagon and this is can be a good thing – focusing on quality is important and should be considered as “table stakes” as customer service expectations rise. Focusing on quality and continuous quality improvement is CRITICAL if your primary customer or stakeholder value proposition is low cost leader and/or operational excellence. To successfully deliver this value proposition, you must achieve high levels of efficiency and predictability in your business processes and performance – this is what it takes to perform/compete successfully. While perfection is likely not required to achieve this goal, it does make sense to put focus and resources here because it’s a strategic imperative. However, if your primary customer/stakeholder value proposition is, for example, product innovation, over-investing in optimizing process performance and achieving maximum operational efficiency may actually get in the way of effective strategy execution. This is because innovation and operational efficiency generally don’t co-exist very well.

In the end, organizations must make smart investments in achieving operational quality, including deciding what level of focus quality efforts should get and whether perfection is truly a business imperative. In my experience, striving for operational perfection is rarely required to achieve strategic business goals. Doing so usually translates into barriers to strategy execution success, investments in business activities that don’t support the real drivers of strategic value, and reduced profitability.

The drive for perfection is alive and well in many organizations and it may actually be getting them into trouble. When its roots are based in the desire to eliminate risk or exercise control over the business environment, this obsession with perfection gets in the way of effective strategy execution. In a small number of cases, the drive for perfection is a strategic imperative. However, more often than not, companies adopt a dedication to perfection either because other companies are or for other root cause motivators related to, for example, low risk tolerance. Perfectionism is rarely necessary in business and it can negatively impact the operational and financial success of a company.

Is the drive for perfection a problem for your organization?

If your company is showing the telltale signs of perfectionism, it’s important to take the time to explore whether this is serving the needs of your customers/stakeholders and your business, assess the impact on strategy execution success, and, if required, take steps to change the focus of your organization from perfectionism to strategy execution excellence.

2 Comments

  1. Mihai Ionescu
    May 15, 2015

    People often confuse ‘perfection’ with ‘complexity’. For them, if something is ‘complex’, it’s automatically aiming for ‘perfection’. They say ‘Let’s do it in a simple way, because aiming for ‘perfection’ makes things too complicated!’.

    But you need to first master the ‘complexity’, in order to reach the more advanced stage of ‘simplicity’. Not a lot of people understand that!

  2. Mihai Ionescu
    Sep 28, 2015

    The insecurity resulting from the lack of knowledge (sometimes, well-hidden) makes people look into the few things that they undrstand with a great level of detail and aim for perfection, even if their bigger picture cannot be but imperfect, because they don’t see it neither in a complete way, nor in the right context.

    That’s what frameworks are for. They put all the building blocks in the right perspective and set the level of detail required for each of them.

    Even more, the frameworks facilitate the correct undrstanding of all the correlations between their building blockes, so the level of detail can be adapted, in each case, in accordance with the respective circumstances

    There is a big difference (as between success and failure) between ‘simple, incorrect/incomplete’ and ‘simple, correct and complete’, even if the level of simplicity has to match the complexity of the organization, of its processes and of its business environment, resulting in something more complex than initially expected.
    .

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