Advice From a Recovering Perfectionist
Innovators know that expecting and embracing imperfection is a necessary ingredient of developing and launching a successful product. Recently, I was reminded of this while working with a client who was preparing to present their MVP to the sales team. Their main concern – was it ‘too basic’? Their demo, although lacking a visually interesting UI, was fully functional. Knowing that an MVP does not need slick aesthetics, we encouraged them to begin using the MVP in sales conversations to demonstrate the breadth of their offerings and to begin getting customer feedback. At the meeting, the CEO began the presentation with one of my favorite quotes by Reid Hoffman -
“‘If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late.’”
I love to remind my clients of this quote because it asks leaders to let go of perfectionism. Perfectionistic tendencies can kill product innovation by limiting opportunities for feedback and testing, and by extension, creating products that have a poor market fit. Time and money are wasted on products that aren’t developed through a more rapid, iterative process. Simply put, there is no time for perfectionism when it comes to product innovation: you need to learn what works with your target customer quickly, and repeatedly release updates that respond to that feedback.
Organizations that want to innovate rapidly must shift their mindset from flawless execution to consistent experimentation. This requires developing processes and practices that normalize failure and help us learn from it.
In this article, we discuss how to accept a less than perfect product by:
- Discovering how perfectionism undermines innovation-supporting behaviors
- Understanding how to reframe failure as an opportunity for learning, and
- Using micro-experiments to flex our experimentation muscles and become more comfortable with failure
Perfectionism Can Undermine Innovation-Supporting Behaviors
Perfectionism is hard to wrangle, because while it certainly can hold us back from facing our fears and discovering new opportunities, it can also help us achieve at a very high level. For those of us who identify as perfectionists (myself included), we often pride ourselves on holding and achieving very high standards, being committed to improvement, and possessing a strong internal drive. Some of these traits are associated with adaptive perfectionism, or the sense of accomplishment and contentment that accompanies a job well done. Studies show that adaptive perfectionism, which also includes a healthy acceptance of strengths and weaknesses, is correlated with less burnout and strain at work.
This healthy form of striving can be powerful: we can all recount with pride a time when our hard work yielded not only a positive outcome, but a strong sense of accomplishment. It can be an inspiring and creative experience. But when perfectionism becomes centered around avoiding failure, shame, judgment, or embarrassment–what psychologists call maladaptive perfectionism–workplaces suffer for it. High rates of perfectionistic concern among leaders are negatively associated with higher rates of employee burnout. As Brené Brown notes, this kind of perfectionism is contagious:
Perfectionism never happens in a vacuum. It touches everyone around us. We pass it down to our children, we infect our workplace with impossible expectations, and it’s suffocating for our friends and families.
The infectious nature of maladaptive perfectionism is one reason why a consortium of researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Florida, and Miami University have concluded that perfectionism is “not constructive in the workplace” because “high-levels of failure-avoiding perfectionism…do not appear to be equally counteracted by its advantages.”
Perhaps most importantly, perfectionists have also been shown to struggle with key behaviors that support innovation, including valuing diversity of thought and opinion, assessing and responding to risk, and embracing change. While the Georgia Tech consortium didn’t find a negative association between perfectionism and creativity, I have seen time and again how perfectionistic striving can keep clients from successfully innovating. The problem isn’t that these clients aren’t coming up with creative ideas: it is that they lack the flexibility and comfort with failure to put these ideas to the test.
Perfectionism is not simply striving to be excellent. It is the fear of failure, judgment, and shame. But even the most hard-wired perfectionists can learn to let go, with some hard work. Therapy, mindfulness practices, and learning to reframe failures as opportunities are all important strategies for learning to accept imperfection, personally and professionally.
Reframing Failure as a Learning Opportunity
Great innovators understand how to learn from failure. Leaders who aim to reject perfectionism agree that becoming comfortable with a model of consistently failed tests–fail, fail, fail, then succeed–best promotes their organizations’ learning. These leaders are not lowering their standards or settling for less than their employees’ best effort, but they are putting a high value on consistent learning and an experimental mindset.
What the most innovative teams have in common is the ability to recognize, and even prompt, what some researchers call “brilliant failures:” “well-intended and prepared projects at the team level that do not achieve their original goals–failing because of something that was not knowable at the time–but providing incredible value to the organization through learning.”
These failures are not costly in part because they are not scaled before they have been repeatedly tested to discover insights, pivots, or limitations. And they are addressed within a company culture that recognizes and rewards failure, shares knowledge across the organization, and practices psychological safety.
Encouraging “brilliant failure” at your organization can be difficult for a variety of reasons, both cultural and organizational. Teams might have been burned by a past bad experience with an underperforming product, or maybe they developed an MVP that was never intended to be consistently upgraded. In these cases, it is critical to develop your organization’s ability to experiment across the entire company. Every team – sales, marketing, customer success, even finance - should be included in the product development process and participate in a transparent feedback loop for submitting ideas for new features. And cross-functional teams should be involved in designing experiments that test these ideas.
The goal is to develop the organization’s ability to conduct experiments with an attitude of curiosity and discovery, as opposed to fear of failure. To put it differently, in this kind of culture, there really is no failure, but instead opportunities to learn something new. You can create this kind of organization by offering many chances to acknowledge, celebrate, and reconsider failures.
Micro-experiments: Build Your Company’s Experimentation Muscles
You don’t need to wait until you have an MVP ready to start working your experimentation muscles–and in fact, practicing experimentation before launching and testing an MVP can help prepare your team to review, assess, and realign your strategy when customer feedback comes in. In my experience, consistently practicing micro-experimentation is one strategy that can help boost resilience to failure and promote learning, especially when practiced across the whole company.
Micro-experiments are designed to reveal “brilliant failures” through small, speedy tests. They should be:
- Small: Cost little time and money.
- Fast: Yield results quickly
- Crucial: Tell us the most amount of information with the least amount of effort
Challenge yourself to design and execute a micro-experiment this week. The idea is to experiment consistently in a low-stakes, but effective, manner so that you can begin to feel more comfortable operating within a test-and-learn mindset. Use the following template to get started.
Step One: Develop a Hypothesis
Ex. If I launch a new research database, at least 50 people who represent my ideal client profile will purchase access to it.
Step Two: Design and conduct an experiment to test it
Ex. I can send out an announcement about my database idea to my newsletter list and ask people to sign up to be notified when it is launched.
Step Three: Evaluate the data
Ex. I see how many people express interest in the idea. Only 10 people signed up. That tells me maybe my database pitch, idea, or target market needs to be revisited.
The trick is to think ahead of time about what you think will happen with the experiment and see if you were right. If you aren’t correct, this is a time for acknowledgement and even celebration. Pat yourself on the back when you identify one or two insights that your experiment yielded, then share what you learned with a colleague, friend, or family member. Send yourself a congratulatory email. Take yourself out to lunch. Do what works to help yourself respond to test results as empowering information, rather than as a source of shame.
Then, create another hypothesis and experiment that responds to your results. The more we practice micro-experiments, the more we will adopt an experimental mindset about our work. And we will also stop feeding our perfectionist tendencies.
To help companies successfully transform their culture into one that prioritizes innovation supporting mindsets and behaviors, we developed Spark – a program designed to help you build the capability to quickly and successfully launch forward-thinking products. Guided by our team of experts, you’ll design a product concept that’s ready to be tested with beta customers – applying the customer-centric, tech-enabled innovation skills you’re learning. If you’re interested in learning more, let’s grab a virtual coffee!