“Perfectionism is increasing and that’s not good news”.

A recent Harvard study tells us that young people are becoming increasingly perfectionistic, and that this is impacting their mental health. Meanwhile, every time we run our Customer-based Design programs senior business people remind us of the expectation of ‘getting it right first time’, regardless of their role or task. They celebrate being given ‘permission’ to prototype, being able to put something rough on the table and refine based on genuine feedback during our course.

If everyone is feeling suffocated by perfection, why do we continue to pursue it? It seems that the pursuit for perfection is so ingrained in our systems and psyche that we just can’t let go.

So, it’s time to think about why it’s important (even critical!), to embrace imperfection. For the sake of your customer experience, here’s 3 reasons why it’s time to let go…

1.   Perfectionism stifles innovation

Innovation requires us to think differently – to try new things, be open in sharing our ideas and open to the ideas of others. We need to fail fast and fail often to get the greatest learnings about how we can improve a product, service or system.

If your team believe that ‘right first time’ is the most important outcome and are rewarded for this, they won’t have a go. Perfectionism closes our mind, and subtly coaxes us to focus too closely on the details. In the meantime, we miss the big picture and the biggest learnings.

If you want to encourage innovation, remove the requirement to be ‘perfect’. Encourage staff to have a go, to sketch out ideas, to learn, and to explore in quick cycles. Avoid judging the details too early, instead, take these opportunities to spark conversations and push the boundaries of what’s possible. Worry about the details as you refine the ideas!

So, keep an eye on how you set and reward tasks. If you send the message that you are seeking perfection, don’t expect innovation.

2.   Perfection is defined by the beholder (not the supplier!)

What is perfect anyway??? One of the mantras of customer research is that ‘people are not like us’. We are all unique, and that means that we each define perfect in a different way.

If we all define ‘perfect’ differently, then my perfect is different to your perfect. And that’s OK – it makes the world an interesting and diverse place to explore. It’s nearly impossible for me to know every nuance of your ‘perfect’, in fact, it’s unlikely that even you can articulate it. If we can’t articulate it, we definitely can’t achieve it!

When we continue to chase perfection, we can also make others around us feel inferior. Our desire to live up to their unrealistic standards, sends a message about our own standards and expectations, creating a vicious cycle where no one wins. It is equally important to be aware of how we speak about our own work and the work of others. Rather than talking down to ourselves and our own efforts due to its ‘lack of perfection’, we should demonstrate a sense of humble pride to encourage others to be proud of their efforts too.

In a business context, we seem to have fallen into the trap of confusing ‘perfectionism’ and ‘professionalism’. Each has its place – I want my accountant to get my final tax submission correct, but a spelling mistake on their website doesn’t really define their skill as an accountant and ability to keep me out of jail.

3.   Perfection discourages humanity

Perfection seems to be the enemy of humanity. When we try to remove all the flaws from an experience our desire for control increases, and our willingness to embrace the human element diminishes.

Think about your coffee purchase this morning. Were you in a hurry, sitting down for a meeting, catching up with a friend, or just keen to enjoy some fresh air? The ‘perfect’ experience might involve a chat with the Barista one day, and quick service the next. Some of our most memorable and best experiences rely on a person to bring humanity and individuality to the interaction.

In a customer experience context, this raises important questions about artificial intelligence. It’s a real challenge to deliver an automated experience whilst maintaining the human aspect, rather than a perfect and sterile ‘would- you-like-fries-with-that’ approach. To attain perfection when delivering a service, a common business approach is to attempt to remove the possibility for human error. Yet the presence of people increases engagement and human error can even be a positive aspect when prompting a good laugh or an interesting story to share.

In conclusion, whether you’re an educator preparing young people for the workplace, or a leader who is helping to shape careers, let’s celebrate imperfection. Otherwise, in our quest to be perfect, we’re stifling innovation, chasing the impossible dream, and discouraging the humanity in our interactions.

Instead, look for ways to encourage, recognise and reward being perfectly imperfect – we’ll all thank you for it!