Innovation

Death by Perfection

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Partner & Strategy Director

The Short of It

  • Perfection is a process not an end goal.
  • Pathways to success inevitably are marked by elements of failure.
  • Fear of failure is what stops failure from actually helping drive progress and innovation.

I just finished Bill Buxton’s book Sketching User Experience: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design. It’s filled with the kinds of examples and insights that you’d expect from a person with his credentials: Chief Scientist of Alias Research and SGI, Inc., Professor at the University of Toronto, researcher at Xerox PARC and Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research. Oh, and his contributions to design, he’s known as one of the pioneers of human-computer interaction, lead Time magazine to call him one of Canada's top five designers.

While the book covers a lot of ground around sketching and other tools that he believes differentiate the design profession, it also highlights the power of iterative methodologies with one story that I think illustrates the point quite well.

A ceramics teacher announces that he’s going to divide the class into two sections. One section would be graded strictly on quantity. The teacher would bring in scales and weigh the work. Fifty pounds would get the student an “A”, forty pounds would get the student a “B” and so on. The other group would be graded on quality. They would only need to produce one pot, but it would have to be perfect. So what happened at the end of the semester?

The highest quality emerged from the group of students whom were being graded on quantity. While many of the “quality” focused students were theorizing and thinking about how to produce a better product, the quantity group had simply been “busily churning out piles of work” that simply meant that they were not only making more mistakes, but learning from them as well.

One of the hardest lessons to learn is that the path to success is actually paved with failure. One of the reasons the lesson is so hard to learn is that from an early age we are taught that failure is a bad thing and should be avoided. Just look at the grading system and you’ll see “F” right there at the bottom, a relic from our days using the Pass/Fail grading system.

This fear of failure stops many of us from building systems and processes that enable us to convert failures into the types of insights and opportunities that allow for progress and innovation to emerge. Once we realize that any concept of perfection is actually more about the process than the end goal, we’ll be better positioned to attain the success we’re looking for.

Every week, we highlight key transformations and trends. Follow us on Twitter.