The hazards of perfection

The business culture at academically-oriented institutions (museums, universities, etc.) carries a heavy burden: perfectionism. It’s a reflection of academia’s meritocracy: work is assessed and rewarded, and status earned based on how close to perfect that work is. This is because of the peer review process: work is subjected to adversarial review, and peers try to pick it apart, challenging every assumption, detail and scrap of evidence in an attempt to find flaws.

This approach serves academia well. It’s laudable and necessary for establishing whether – for example – a new medical approach has been designed and tested thoroughly enough to merit mainstream adoption. It’s essential for testing whether observed physical phenomena are bona fide and can serve as the underpinnings for future work. It’s useful for determining whether sociological or psychological theses are valid or based on flawed assumptions and hidden prejudices.

These inquisitions and investigations test the rigor and strength of academic work, because so much depends on their accuracy and validity: the very foundation of knowledge in our society depends on this. Without it, we’re left with conjecture, maybes and assumptions that can undermine the body of knowledge our society requires for progress.

The danger

Unfortunately, this quite necessary emphasis on perfection bleeds into peripheral areas where academia has no place and where it undermines and weakens everything it touches. Perfection is the enemy of done on time and done well. It’s where ego goes to find refuge from criticism. It impedes the ability to get work done in a timely fashion, to make quick decisions, to work efficiently and to keep business processes lean.

Unfortunately, in academic settings business culture becomes academic, adopting all the qualities that serve academia, but which are antithetical to successful business. Quick decisions, good (but not perfect) work, risk tolerance and other essential business virtues are shunted aside in the hunt for perfection.

The result is a dysfunctional business climate. But it doesn’t have to be.

What we can do differently?

  1. Talk up and explain the necessary differences between academic and business values to senior administrators. These are the key decision-makers who most likely come from an academic background, and who may unconsciously bias business operations towards an academic model. The Lean Startup is a good place to begin the discussion, because it explains in simple language the business logic of doing things quickly and iteratively, learning by doing, getting products to market quickly, and – most importantly – not over-thinking business decisions, which is the greatest danger posed by an academic bias.
  2. Focus on metrics. They replace the academic reward structure that values perfectionism, with one that focuses on objective, empirical business results. Those results don’t have to be elegant or academic: if they’re explicitly laid out and align with the institution’s strategic goals, metrics can help an organization make better business decisions.
  3. Talk Agile. The Agile Manifesto and the body of test cases and knowledge behind it approach an academic level of rigor. It’s hard to argue with the case histories, studies and research that validate this approach. Agility can apply to much more than software development, and uses concepts and a language that an academic can relate to.
  4. Stay on strategy. Your organization’s strategic goals – not a drive for perfection – can and should drive your organization’s business decisions. Showing that your tactics align with the organization’s strategy is armor against a whole range of potential criticisms.
  5. Embrace failure. There’s no better antidote for perfectionism than failure. Acceptance of failure is the hardest of these five points to embrace, but the most transformative. Fail Fridays, peer learning sessions and more can help an organization de-fang failure and make risk more acceptable.

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