In 1994 Michael Jordan made the ultimate career pivot that, in the decades since, resulted in tomes of pundit analysis, speculation, criticism, and sheer awe. That a basketball great like Jordan, in fact a legend already at the time, would test his hand at playing pro in a second sport, was surely a testament to his ability to embrace and learn from failure.
After all, we remember his words of wisdom in that infamous Nike ad:
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
– Michael Jordan
Pull back the PR curtain, and it’s clearer his decision to take a timeout from his main game wasn’t necessarily emblematic of his deep understanding of the value of taking risks. Rather, it was in order to overcome the perils of his perfectionist tendencies as pressure to perform superhuman feats became too great. For all the astonishing talent Jordan has, he did not operate, or play, in a vacuum. Bulls coach Phil Jackson chronicled the challenges Jordan had in dialing down his demands on his teammates and keeping his hypercompetitive nature in check off the court too.
Psychologists Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt know Jordan’s story well, and also the stories of countless unsung athletes who have been subjects of their research into the “perfectionism paradox.”
It turns out those “motivating” perfectionist tendencies that client compliments are often attributed to often lead to overwork and self-defeating psychological pressure. In particular, perfectionism poses the greatest threat when we’re faced with adverse situations - how a competitor performs, personal missteps or chance events outside of our control. In these circumstances, perfectionists are extremely likely to miss the goal they sight their sights on to start.
Did you hear that? Your fantasy of being the perfect agency owner running the perfect agency is causing you to fail!
Holding yourself and your agency to nothing less than a standard of perfection drowns out your ability to make logical decisions and sets unrealistic expectations for the people on your team. It is counterproductive and the surest way to burnout and run your agency into the ground.
But, hey, you say, what’s wrong with wanting to excel, to be best in class?
Nothing. And there’s a key difference between striving for excellence and insisting on the unattainable.
Because perfectionism obscures our ability to judge objectively and reasonably, it’s often difficult to decipher whether you’ve tipped the scale from quality-driven creative to impossible-to-satisfy delusional sweatshop manager.
What are some signals you can look for, then, to gain perspective?
Think of the biggest project you’re working right now. Where is it in your workflow process?
If you can’t identify where it is because you’re solely focused on the work product, it’s a good sign you’ve set an unachievable, and moreover business-sabotaging, goal of creating a faultless capstone that will never need to be touched again.
Do you really want to create artefacts that become antiquated the minute they're launched? Isn't it more exciting to design magnetic, ever-evolving entities?
Here’s another good indicator your perfectionism is holding you back from reaching your long game. Take a look back at the reality check we did in the previous article from this series. How much progress have you made towards changing the most broken area of your agency?
If you’re still trying to “craft” the right strategy, chances are high you’ve allowed your perfectionism to bring along its ugly cousin, procrastination. Clinging to the notion you just need to wait for the right moment to change up your process means you aren’t adding value for your agency, and in turn, not for your clients either.
Great, so you’re standing face to face with your perfectionist complex. What now?
If you can accept that “perfectionism is just a snobbish word for fear,” there are a few steps you can take to shift your standards to a healthier, growth-enabling approach.
The most likely reason you haven’t taken the first step towards tackling your big beast of a problem is the fear your team or, worse, your clients will catch a whiff that not everything is right as rain in your agency. You can already envision them fleeing, like rats from a sinking ship.
But, the one missing the boat is you. Time and again, clients cite an agency’s lack of innovation and ability to adopt new technologies and practices as reason for leaving.
Just as MJ wasn’t born with a perfect jump shot, your process will take effort to reach a mastery level.
What’s more, that endeavour can potentially provide better value than the shiny product at the end. Artist and designer Ralph Ammer sums this beautifully “To watch an athlete perform flawlessly is nice, but to watch him fight the odds is exciting.”
That’s not to say you have to put all your trials and tribulations on full display. Instead, by communicating that you’re changing things up so you can deliver exceptional work, you will attract more collaborators, colleagues, clients, and ultimately, more compliments your inner stickler so craves.
When you define the only acceptable result as perfection, you’ve automatically severely restricted the chance of coming up with a genuinely creative and original solution. You have also placed yourself at the center of the solution, clouding your ability to consider what will create the most value for the client.
For most perfectionists, there is almost never a point where they believe they have created the perfect thing. Instead, they keep mussing and fussing over their work, often missing deadlines and pushing projects way over budget.
When you find yourself in this situation, review the client brief, or verbalise the problem the client most needs solved with the work. Get the team involved to find out what components they think are essential to master and what parts need less attention. Trust them - you brought them on board for a reason.
Now you can prioritise what you need to be great at, and focus your energies on those activities instead of nitpicking minor flaws that don’t affect the overall value of the work.
If your research process wasn’t thorough enough in the proposal stage of the project, don’t be afraid to revisit it. Continuous investigation and iteration is what sets apart excellent agencies from the ones just getting by.
In fact, applying design thinking principles can help you break the perfectionism loop by replacing compulsive fear of the outcome with clarity and a feeling of control.
Consider presenting the work in its current iteration to get feedback. Are you going in the right direction? Involving the client may actually lead them to reach a higher level of satisfaction with the final solution.
If you’re still struggling to let go a little, remember that one man’s floor is another man’s ceiling. That is, perfection is relative, not absolute.
Scary, but true, your idea of perfection is imperfect to someone else.
For better or worse, the mantras from design educations and an overly romanticised public image of our industry reinforce a bit of innate neuroticism that leads us to believe our obsessive idealism is not only normal, but essential. Truthfully, the whole “never let your work see the light of day unless it’s flawless” trope is rubbish. It’s a short-game strategy that ignores the fleeting nature of “perfect” and “done.”
Adopting agile processes and a growth-driven design philosophy are good ways to push past perfectionist hold-ups. They also tend to increase the lifetime value you can deliver to clients. Before you cringe at the thought of shackling your design process with “developers’ practices,” consider that an agile mindset can even bridge the gap between design and development, producing vastly better work.
Setting, and sticking to, intermediate deadlines allows you to keep forward momentum with a focus on fulfilling someone else’s needs instead of your own insatiable desire for immaculate creation.
Build in opportunities to gather feedback and iterate, but do not take that as license to return to details which only you identified as unfinished.
In no way am I suggesting you deliver buggy or careless work. Those sorts of issues are more often the result of poor processes that can be exacerbated by a single-minded focus on the product. We’ll come back to how the topic of processes in an upcoming article.
In the meantime, try shifting to a mindset of improvement and take these words to heart:
“I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying”
– Michael Jordan
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This post is the fourth in our series examining the 7 reasons creative agencies are not winning the long game and what they can do to overcome those obstacles.
Here's our roadmap.