Tuesday, September 3, 2013

In Search of Perfection

Like me, most of you have been in multiple organizations.  Some strive to continually improve while others maintain the status quo, because it is sufficient.  Many times a company's external competitive environment will have a strong influence on its internal culture.  An electric utility company, for example, is not rewarded for risk taking.  Therefore, its culture will have a strong bias towards maintaining the status quo.  On the other hand, retail and marketing companies are strongly rewarded for "pushing the envelope".  Since Google is a marketing company, is it surprising that they allocate a certain percentage of each employee's work week to personal projects?  How risky would it be in your company to give each worker the chance to spend time on their own endeavors?

My own preference is one for action.  I am so thoroughly constructed to improve that at times, to my own detriment, I become a solution in search of a problem.  However, I see it not only as an option but a duty of managers at all levels to continually strive for improvement.  I've been rightly chastised for driving my teams harder than I should.  It's part of my own personal learning about knowing when and when not to push down on the gas pedal.

I remember a topic that came up during a friendly 1:1 conversation I had with a CIO back in the middle 1990's.  We were discussing how to provide a level of customer service that continually improved.  The CIO told me in a very confident, satisfied tone of voice basically the following: "Look Christopher, my phone isn't ringing with any complaints.  Why try to fix something when it's not broken (and working well)?"  This conversation has stuck with me for almost 20 years.

The CIO's whole premise was that equilibrium was a virtue to be maintained and nurtured.  That is completely contrary to the way I think.  While I believe equilibrium is a good thing if you're actually walking on a circus tightrope, in life and work we should be like that running back who is staggering forward to eke out just two more yards (The new NFL season starts this week!)  We should always be trying to get just a little bit better everyday.  If not, why even be here on planet Earth?  We're here for such a short amount of time that not to try for perfection is a waste of life.

So I just used the "P" word (perfection).  That brings me to another accusation I've had leveled at me over my career.  People say, "Christopher is always seeking perfection when there is no such thing!"  Ahh, but that is where they are wrong.  Part of what drives me personally is that I know perfection does exist.  Even though I know that neither I nor anyone alive today will reach it, we do indeed have something for which to strive.  Before you disagree, let me give you some evidence.

In the 11th century the religious philosopher Saint Anselm developed an interesting treatise.  At the time, he was looking for a way to prove the existence of God.  The beauty of the argument he constructed is that it had/has an enormous bearing on the human mind and will.  Extrapolating from Saint Anselm's argument: If a human mind can conceive of the existence of something, then it must exist.  

You don't have to apply this to God.  Just think about the technological advances we've made since WWII.  How many things were conceived at a time when they did not exist, yet they exist today?  In the 40's and 50's there was a comic strip called "Dick Tracy".  The titular character communicated using a video wristwatch.  What are Samsung, Apple, and several other companies about to launch this year?

When it comes to managing and improving our organizations each of us must make decisions.  If you have a functioning organization where "your phone isn't ringing", that's good but is it optimal?  Should you push to be better, even when nobody is clamoring for change?  If you do, that means you will constantly be dealing with issues - process, people, and structure.  It might even be the case that you have to replace employees who will never be more than just barely average.  Tough decisions for you, all around.  But knowing that perfection does exist, shouldn't you try to grab for it even if you can never reach it?  Your answer will go a long way towards determining if you're good or great.

Remember one last thing.  Trying to be better than average will always ensure that the harder you try, the more effort others will put into opposing you.  If you want to be exceptional, expect to end your life, so to speak, covered in the scars of battle.  Nobody ever summarized this point better than Homer when, in Book 9 of the Iliad, he laid out Achilles' choice:

"Mother tells me,the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,that two fates bear me on to the day of death. If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,my pride, my glory dies. . . ."

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