There is great satisfaction to be gained from doing something to a very high standard, whether baking a cake or completing a complex project at work, but striving for perfection in everything we do can have unintended harmful consequences for individuals as well as for organisations. In leadership, it’s vital to remember that while excellence is desirable, it’s progress rather than perfection that matters most.

It was interesting to hear colleagues discussing cooking at our recent Christmas get-together. While some in our team are precision bakers, measuring everything out carefully on their digital scales, others are far more relaxed and love to improvise when they cook. Technology means that kitchen scales can now measure to a fraction of a gram, unlike when our mothers or grandmothers used traditional balance scales. But do our cakes today look or taste any better as a result? Almost certainly not!

Several years ago we published a blog about the art of effortless success which seems very pertinent. In that article we referred to the analogy of a guitar string being too tight and therefore being out of tune, just as it would be if it was too loose. The best and most tuneful outcome arises when the string is just taut enough. And so it is that trying too hard and striving too strongly can be just as detrimental to our performance as a lack of effort.

The reason for this is simple biology. As humans our bodies are designed to help us out in short-lived moments of high stress (being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger) by releasing hormones which will increase our focus and by sending blood and oxygen to where we need it in that moment. But our brains and bodies are not designed to function in that way for prolonged periods. If unrealistic targets are imposed (either by ourselves or others) to put us in a longer term high-stress scenario, our natural functions cannot cope, resulting in mental and physical health problems and the inevitable (and understandable) drop-off in performance. The irony is that a constant push for perfection will ultimately end in failure.

One hugely important reason to focus on progress not perfection is because perfection doesn’t exist! Anyone who has ever hit a target, only to find it extended, will know that today’s perfection is tomorrow’s work in progress, so to fixate on achieving perfection is futile as well as soul-destroying.

The good news is that – as we observed in this article – progress can be made in very small increments. Even the tiniest of achievements will make a difference in the long run and will be a useful psychological boost in the meantime too.  What’s more, progress is not always linear. In fact, a setback is just as valuable as a step forward because it provides an opportunity for learning. When you have a robust system in place for examining errors and missteps (such as After Action Review), it’s possible to improve and course correct constantly without slowing down your progress.

As you evaluate the performance of your organisation, your team or yourself in 2023, and as you look ahead to your targets for 2024, make sure you focus on the progress metrics. Goals can and should be stretching, but by ensuring that progress is recognised and rewarded along the way to reaching those goals, you will keep motivation and engagement high. And when there’s a bump in the road, the positive energy you’ve created will help you to learn and move on rather than get knocked off your path.

If we can help support you and your team in making meaningful progress, please get in touch.

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