Escaping the perfectionism trap

Posted on February 15, 2011 by Janet Coats

Almost 15 years ago, the American Society of News Editors launched a major project aimed at improving the credibility of newspapers with their communities.

Part of that effort involved a deep study documenting the cultural issues facing American newspaper newsrooms. One of the findings was that newsrooms were paralyzed by a culture of perfectionism.

The study found that the institutions that had the most in common with newsrooms were hospitals and the military. When you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. All three of those institutions are characterized by a low tolerance for mistakes and a high degree of inspection.

Perfectionism has its place. No one wants to make mistakes, particularly mistakes that could result in death or injury or potentially irreparable damage to someone’s reputation.

But perfectionism also can stifle creativity. It can be the death of smart risk-taking. It can lock an institution into a world view that doesn’t allow for change or innovation – after all, innovation is messy and prone to failure and mistakes.

Part of what I’ve been learning this last year in working with The Patterson Foundation is how to leave that culture of perfectionism behind and learn how to fail effectively. One of the joys of my work with TPF has been the freedom to try out new ideas and approaches without the fear of some kind of “punishment’’ for failing. Instead, TPF has made learning from our failures a key part of our work.

That said, it is one thing to know that the people who are enabling your work encourage smart risk-taking, and another thing to internalize that belief in your own thinking. That’s been a hard journey for someone whose professional life has been spent believing just the opposite, but I think I’m finally beginning to make the break through.

What occupies my thinking now on this topic is how to fail effectively – how to capture what I’m learning when things don’t go as I expected. We’re so accustomed to burying our failures that really examining them and understanding them seems like a foreign concept.

So I’m harkening back to practices followed by one of those other perfectionist cultures – the military.

I worked for five years in Norfolk, Va., home of a major Navy base. When the Navy had a major failure of process, the leadership would often call for a “stand down.’’ They would set aside normal duties and routines to focus on the failure, to try to understand what went wrong and how it could be prevented in the future.

I’m focused now on finding ways to “stand down’’ in my own work, to reflect on my failures and mistakes and learn from them. To do that effectively, I’m thinking of incorporating these elements in my work:

• Keeping both a long-term plan and short-term road map for my projects. That road map has to include milestones -- concrete accomplishments that I can use to measure progress toward my destination.

• Regular, honest evaluation of progress toward those milestones. Did I veer off course? Am I still on track to make the milestone, or am I heading in a new direction?

• Using journalism’s basic questions – who, what, when, where, why and how – to report on my own work. Who am I including in the work? Who is being left out? What process am I using to do the work? When do I expect to see results? When should I move in a different direction? Where are the other stakeholders in my work? Why did a particular process work? How can I avoid future failures like this one?

• Document, document, document. This means setting up accountability measures for myself – keeping track of deadlines, of expenses, of partner relationships, of outcomes. And it means asking for others to evaluate and keeping track of their feedback.

This is just my starting point for a more thoughtful approach to failing successfully. What ideas do you have about learning from failure?

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.