A perfect change leader


Nobody’s perfect, right? How does perfection happen in change leadership and what's the result?

For me, perfection shows up when I’m polishing a business communication (too strong? too long? will they read it?), or developing project plan (overdone? enough risk? enough detail in the WBS?), or even dressing for a meeting (what would Tim Gunn say?), for a few examples. Being perfect is about following The Rules, or about striving to be judged exceptional by someone else or against some standard that may or may not have a basis in reality

Does this sounds like you or someone you know?

How perfectionism impacts the ability to lead change

Caught up in the pursuit of perfection, I have noticed the following:

Time passes. I have delayed making decisions or taking action because something was not “perfect”. Time is precious, and schedules are tight enough. How much time could I have saved if I reached for “good enough” instead of “perfect”?

Results are not used. The effort I have exerted to make something "perfect" was not necessary. I over-formatted a presentation; I provided too much detail; I provided more information than was needed to make a decision. How well did I really know the intended audience and purpose of the result? On what other work could I have spent my efforts instead?

Results are not achieved. I have introduced changes (“scope creep”) into requirements (like the design of a user interface) so often that it seemed like it was never done. “Just one more change and it will be perfect” …until the next one. One of my early managers frequently used the expression, "just take it across the goal line" because we never really ended projects, because they hadn't reached that "perfect" state.

Experience doesn’t happen. In this “I have no idea what I may have missed” category, I can only speculate. By sticking to perfection, I probably missed an opportunity to make a mistake, which I could learn from (see Carol Sweck’s book, referenced below). Or to offer a "less-than-perfect" draft result and get contributions from other people. Or to test-run an incomplete process and discover something that will make it better the next time. Or to take a first step and using the experience to build confidence for the next step, instead of insisting on first designing an entire "perfect" procedure.

Worry/fear/stress happens. I have created stress for myself and others by worrying that an outcome wouldn't be perfect, and/or anticipating the negative judgment of others. The morale of my team and I suffered when senior managers spent a whole meeting focused on what was not right without acknowledging all the otherwise great results.

What to do differently

Experience is a great teacher. Here are some things I have learned:

Expect mistakes, they will happen, and accept them. I have helped to eliminate (at least reduce) judgment connected with the word “mistakes” by redefining them as outcomes to learn from. A data conversion once missed a whole class of customers (among several other similar misses); in prior experience there might have been a lot of drama and pointing at this as a mistake, but this time we just note the omission and fixed it, done.

Focus more on process and less on measurement. Project management methodology exists for a reason. It has many elements, including requirements management, risk management, task planning, communication, and governance. These processes work. Of course, I had to learn and use the processes. With practice and experience, using these processes has reduced my delays and extra effort, and has improved the quality of the results.

Become a master. This has included having awareness of my own beliefs and values and acting accordingly, such as taking time for a team recognition and celebration at the end of a project. And having confidence in my strengths instead of performing for external validation, such as supporting my team’s delivery schedule instead of giving in to a senior manager who wanted it done earlier. And being open to choices instead of acting in a prescribed way, such as when we decided to implement parallel two CRM systems instead of having one, even though the vendor recommended against it. And being conscious of my personal energy and its interplay with the people and environment around me, as when I showed up off-hours in support and commitment to the team working overtime to meet a deliverable.

Redefining perfection

Some performance measures for change leadership include milestones met, quality of deliverables, project expenses, customer survey scores, and even praise/criticism from others. I’d rather not define a perfect change leader as one who targets these measures, using them as judgments of success and failure, or as goads to motivate anyone's performance. I’d rather use the measures as feedback to tell me how my team and I did our work so that we can learn and grow from each experience.

It comes down to this: I think I’m being a perfect change leader when I’m practicing a set of disciplines – including change management methods and tools, as well as presence, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and others – to the best of my ability, at that moment, with the intention of mastering them. That last bit is the point: the work of becoming a master is never done; with each experience come the opportunity to grow.

They say that nobody is perfect.
Then they tell you practice makes perfect.
I wish they'd make up their minds. - Wilt Chamberlain

Postscript: Why we behave this way

Many books have been written about recognizing and working with perfection and similar beliefs about ourselves. Here are two I recommend:

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck.

Taming Your Gremlin: A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way by Rick Carson.