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Striving for Perfection

June 1, 2006
Perfection isn't an accident, and managers shouldn't be afraid to make it the ultimate goal for your company.

Leaders all too often focus on obstacles rather than opportunities. They must first have the vision to see opportunities for their companies and then lead others beyond the obstacles. Effective leaders must be willing to take risks.

Unfortunately, this scares away some managers. They shouldn't be afraid to think big about changes that could really revolutionize how their company operates. For instance, what would happen if you cross-trained your employees and actually had more workers than job slots? Most managers wouldn't consider this strategy because they would be afraid of the cost. But did anyone actually calculate the cost of being short-staffed, putting new hires into the fire, or stressing out managers and having them more focused on the problems than on developing the company's future? I believe a complete evaluation would demonstrate it's cheaper to have a few extra bodies. But so many of us just can't see beyond our obstacles — in this case, the labor cost line in a budget.

I like to play a game with the client management teams that ask me to help them achieve high-performance. I ask, “What does perfect look like? You may never get there. But if you could, what would it look like?”

In this exercise, most leaders fail to see the best-performance opportunity. Asking the question, “What does perfect look like?” is the key to unlocking innovation in your company. All leaders should ask this of their management team because it's really at the germination stage of any successful business. The embryo of greatness for your company lies in the ability of your leadership to define the answer to this question.

Picasso said every child is an artist. The problem for all children is for them to remain artists when they grow up. The same goes with our ability to paint perfection. As a child, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. It was the perfect job my mind could create. But being a chubby kid, I was once told I would have to be smaller than the capsule before I could be an astronaut. Everyone would laugh. People I respected back then told me repeatedly that I would never make it. The obstacles were flying at me, and soon they were all I could see. The opportunity for me to become an astronaut became completely obscured until I no longer believed it existed.

It's easy to see which leaders are focused more on the obstacle than the opportunity of high-performance. In fact, some are convinced they will never get past the obstacle, and they seem fine with that as long as their golden parachute kicks in. Think about a leader with “failure compensation” of $21 million as their golden parachute. That person has no desire to see beyond the obstacle because he or she negotiated a losing strategy.

What about your working environment? Are you setting the stage for your team to shoot toward perfection? Let's look at the four strategies that must be in place before you can see what perfection looks like for your organization.

Eliminate boundaries. I asked a client if he would allow one of his department heads to spend $2 million on new equipment if he could guarantee it would generate more than $4 million in new profits. Unfortunately, the client wasn't willing to take on that expense because all he could see was the obstacle: the $2 million. You may not think this manager can guarantee these profits. Why not? Isn't that just another obstacle to perfection?

If you want to create no boundaries-based thinking, then you must be willing to drop all boundaries and leave them down as long as your managers are able to create compelling arguments for how to reach the ultimate target for your company: perfection.

Develop a solution-focused corporate culture. If your weekly manager's meeting is all about the blame game, no one will want to spend much time looking into potential opportunities. It's what I like to call the “invisible fence for dogs theory.” With invisible fencing, a loop of buried copper wire carrying a low-level voltage forms a border. The dog wears a collar with a battery-powered transmitter. When the dog gets close to the wire, the transmitter emits a clicking sound, and if it runs over the fence it will get a slight shock. After a few weeks of training with the invisible fencing, the dog realizes the clicking sound from the collar is the early warning before the shock. To prevent the shock from happening, the dog stops short of the boundary. Pretty soon the dog doesn't even have to wear the shock collar before stopping short of the invisible boundary.

If I know that anytime I step over the line I'm going to get a “shock,” it doesn't matter how hard you convince me I won't get shocked — I am not straying where I've never been allowed to venture before. In contrast, in a corporate culture that evaluates mistakes by looking for corrective action and solutions rather than by assigning blame, it's much easier to see the opportunity.

Don't listen to, “But we've always done it that way.” The old ways become obstacles to fresh perspectives. People who can't give up old methods and reject new ideas that are better for your company become obstacles in themselves. If in defining perfection you become uneasy with some of the ideas because they seem too radical, that's a good sign. The freedom to think with abandon is the process of removing all obstacles and getting a clearer picture of a destination you may have never thought possible.

Make it a meaningful exercise. Don't bother spending an afternoon playing “wish upon a star” if you don't have any real expectations of making the necessary plans to reach this lofty opportunity. I've worked with management teams who went through the process, and they got excited about the opportunities. But then the CEO poured the obstacles back on top of them, ensuring that not much, if anything, was going to really change. It frustrated managers because they saw what was possible before the CEO took it away.

If you want to make your company a high-performance organization and achieve your ultimate in potential, paint the picture of perfect. Let your managers contribute to the painting, and watch how the path to that vision becomes easier than you thought possible once everyone is focused on the opportunity rather than the obstacle.

The author is president of Russell J. White International Inc., Lake Wylie, S.C., and known in speaking and consulting circles as “The Big Guy.” He is an author, trainer and international speaker with 25 years of experience as a Fortune 500 manager and consultant. White is the author of “Debunking the Designated Decoy: Get to the truth in your organization!” and “Little White Truths: Lessons for Leadership.” His articles appear in national trade magazines and regional business newspapers. White can be reach at (877) 275-9468 or by e-mail at [email protected]. Visit his Web site at