Why Perfectionism Stifles Innovation

Striving for excellence is not the same thing as demanding perfection. 

Man down on his hands and knees with a magnifying glass looking at a rug.

Striving for excellence opens up possibilities while demanding perfection attempts to carve outcomes in stone. It’s easy to see how perfectionism can stifle an innovation strategy and constrain people to the point where they’re paralyzed by fear of making a mistake. 

Unfortunately, perfectionism is often seen as a good thing. After all, what could be better than perfection? In reality, however, perfection is an abstraction, an unending pursuit of goalposts that constantly move, and a mindset that leads to inaction rather than action. It’s easy to see how perfectionism can squeeze the life out of an innovation strategy.

Problems Caused by Perfectionism

In purely practical terms, perfectionism makes a company slow to market. While being first to market isn’t always ideal, being fast to market is. The companies that rapidly improve on newly launched products in terms of reduced costs or improved features are often the biggest market winners. 

You can’t “win” in the marketplace if you obsess over every tiny detail to the point you delay products while competitors march into the market and enjoy all the success. Drive, flexibility, and willingness to improve beat out perfectionism every time. 

How to Overcome Perfectionism

Overcoming perfectionist tendencies requires a shift in perspective. Focusing on the progress that has been made is far more productive than focusing on an elusive “perfect” product, process, or service. Most people have to make a conscious, committed effort to make this shift in perspective, and it can take time. One way to develop the habit of valuing progress over perfection is to write down accomplishments at the end of every day. 

Woman writing in a notebook.

Unfortunately, the platitude of “giving 100 percent” or even “giving 110 percent” has imprinted itself into the public consciousness. Perhaps an “80 percent approach” is better. When everyone strives to give their best 80 percent, they have permission to experiment and take risks. It is those very experiments and risks that provide fuel for a long-term innovation strategy. 

Relief from Perfectionism Frees People to Innovate

Freedom from perfectionism is freedom to innovate. If you’re not obsessed with achieving perfection, you’re likelier to take risks and try new things. When you are in the habit of appreciating progress, you can look back on accomplishments and innovations with pride, rather than picking over the ways in which they fell short. 

Ultimately, trying to ensure that everything is flawless holds us back and prevents us from challenging norms that perhaps should be challenged. An innovation strategy depends on a willingness to try new things, think in different ways, and make mistakes. In fact, a true innovation strategy cannot exist alongside entrenched perfectionism. 

Do you impose unrealistic standards of perfection on yourself? Do you impose those standards of perfection on others? Do you perceive unrealistic expectations of perfection from others? If any of these is the case, then you (or others) are operating within constraints that limit innovation. Progress is attainable, but perfection isn’t, and that means that with an innovation strategy, progress, not perfection, is the goal.

Are you interested in building a strong innovation strategy in your organization? If so, we invite you to get our Innovation Starter Kit today!

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