A perfectionist mindset is defined - even confined - by the fear of failure. In business, some employees tie themselves to the proverbial mast by declaring that real success doesn't come with an asterisk; that projects aren't ready for view until every possible flaw is hammered out and contingency prepared for. Their complete dedication to perfection might seem impressive, or something to strive for - but in actuality, that aversion to even partial failure can stifle innovation and hamstring business productivity.
When an employee says that they won't move on until they resolve every possible problem, they express an intense and potentially productivity-crippling fear of failure, for so long as a project is not done, no one can criticize the outcome. In wanting to get even the smallest details of a project correct right away, they box themselves into the expectation that no part of their work should ever need to undergo revision. However, that do-it-once approach simply isn’t how development works; even the best systems and products require updates from time to time.
I’ve spent decades of my career working in executive leadership roles, and I can definitively share from my own experience that the uncompromising drive towards total success can, ironically enough, slow or even wreck projects entirely. All too often, I’ve seen skilled engineers and product managers drag their feet on a project, insisting that they need just a few more days, weeks, or months to make the end result perfect.
The pursuit of perfection isn’t worth the sheer time wasted.
The search for innovation is a little different. I encourage my employees to pursue an 80/20 policy: if they can get a project 80% correct and launch it into the market, they can then work hard to fix the remaining 20% afterward. This philosophy helps engineers overcome the perfection time drain and move forwards when they might have otherwise floundered. Productive risk-taking inevitably leads to mistakes - however, so long as those errors aren’t fatally expensive or time-consuming to remedy, they tend to be both acceptable and fixable.
You see, the key to succeeding as a middle market company is being able to outgrow and innovate beyond the competition - and that kind of growth simply isn’t possible within the bounds of a perfectionist mindset.
Businesses don’t need to cultivate perfectionists. Instead, they should pursue intrapreneurs.
Like entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs are forward-thinking risk-takers and creative change-makers who aren’t afraid to think outside of the box or make waves. The difference, however, lies in their position. Where entrepreneurs pursue innovative ideas independently, intrapreneurs do so within the existing framework of a corporate organization. These individuals tend to be remarkably valuable; according to a report from Deloitte, active and organizationally-supported intrapreneurs can improve overall company culture, provide their company with a competitive advantage over its competitors, better the company’s bottom line, and even grow the in-house talent pool.
Finding intrapreneurs, however, isn’t always easy. As management researchers Vijay Govindarajan and Jatin Desai write in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “These individuals are not always your top talent or the obvious rebels or mavericks. But they are unique and certainly the opposite of ‘organization men.’”
Intrapreneurs tend to be excellent at stepping around the bureaucratic red tape and pursuing new ideas without becoming bogged down in organizational drag; those qualities make them both active in-company innovators and remarkably difficult to identify. To make matters more challenging, Govindarajan and Desai estimate that within a company of 5,000 employees, only 250 will be natural innovators - and of those innovators, a mere 25 will be effective intrapreneurs.
Finding these change-makers is only half of the battle. Intrapreneurs can dream all day, but unless the company they work for provides an environment that is supportive of their pursuits, they won’t be able to implement their ideas - and the company won’t be able to reap the benefits of their innovative thinking.
Interestingly enough, employers can often play a significant role in suppressing, rather than supporting, their aspiring intrapreneurs. As business psychology professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains in an article on the subject, approximately 70% of entrepreneurs develop their business ideas while working for previous employers - and then leave when they realize that their existing corporate environment doesn’t have an intrapreneurial structure in place. To exacerbate the problem, company leaders are often unwilling to encourage innovative thinking because they fear that they will lose promising employees to impressed outside parties or upset the status quo.
Case Study: Steven Sasson and Kodak
Engineer Steven Sasson was working for Kodak when he invented the first digital - then electronic still - camera. The company patented the device in 1978 and quickly shoved it under wraps, forbidding Sasson to talk about his invention. This choice might seem odd, given the camera’s potential to disrupt the market and rake in profits for Kodak - but to Kodak, the decision made financial sense.
New York Times reporter James Estrin sums up the matter well in a profile piece on Sasson: “If you wanted to photograph your child’s birthday party, you would likely be using a Kodak Instamatic, Kodak film and Kodak flash cubes. You would have it processed either at the corner drugstore or mail the film to Kodak and get back prints made with Kodak chemistry on Kodak paper. It was an excellent business model.”
Of course, the decision to set digital aside frustrated Sasson.
“Every digital camera that was sold took away from a film camera and we knew how much money we made on film. That was the argument,” the inventor explains in Estrin’s piece, “Of course, the problem is pretty soon you won’t be able to sell film — and that was my position.”
Just as Sasson predicted, digital camera manufacturers came to usurp Kodak’s supremacy. In January of 2012, the company filed for bankruptcy.
But imagine how the situation might have turned out of Kodak hadn’t suppressed Sasson; if they had decided to support his intrapreneurial efforts instead. Though it’s impossible to know for sure, it is highly likely that the company could have hopped on the digital bandwagon sooner and sidestepped bankruptcy entirely.
Fostering Intrapreneurship is a Two-Step Process
Company leaders have a two-fold task when it comes to encouraging intrapreneurship. First, they need to identify those employees who have the intrapreneurial mindset and assign them to roles where they can perform to their potential. Secondly, leaders need to create a company culture that appreciates and encourages innovative thinking and constructive conversation. People need to feel as though they can air and pursue their ideas - otherwise, development-centered conversations will quickly turn stale.
By embracing intrapreneurship and giving innovators the chance to pursue creative ideas with greater autonomy and support, leaders can foster a culture that both promotes achievement and faces the risk of (constructive) failure head-on.