I was complaining to a friend about my perfectionist tendencies when she asked: “Could you have accomplished everything you’ve done in your life if you weren’t striving for perfection?” Her question got me thinking about the relationship between perfection and excellence, and inspired me to ask a question of my own: When, as leaders, we strive for perfection, do we promote excellence? Or do we compromise it? Cross-cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien says the difference between perfection and excellence is “the willingness to be caught learning.” And I think she’s onto something here. Perfectionism doesn’t offer much room for experimentation, learning, and embracing the unknown — endeavors essential to innovation, which is a key ingredient in excellence, both personal and professional. The founders of HP, who achieved many of their breakthroughs from a garage in Silicon Valley, pioneered the 80/20 rule. They would get a product on the market at 80-percent effective, then refine it the remaining 20 percent in response to the marketplace. That approach works better in some industries than others. For instance, you probably wouldn’t want to drive a vehicle that is just 80-percent tested and then deemed safe. But 80/20 seems to be the rule with new software releases (buggy things, aren’t they?) — and if software companies waited for perfection, it’s likely that very few products would ever ship. We’ve all heard the saying that the great is the enemy of the good (or the perhaps the good enough). I’ve experienced this truism through writing. If my inner critic gets the better of me — a sign of perfectionism taking hold — I’m unable to produce a single word. However, if I relax and let my sense of adventure guide me, I am much more apt to produce something compelling, even if it is not great at first. The same is true in music. Successful improvisation takes both creative and critical faculties. Putting both into action at once is a little like applying brakes and accelerator simultaneously; you get nowhere. To make music, to write, indeed, to produce anything and to lead others, we must balance and harmonize the creative and free-ranging with the critical and constraining. When I’m leading a group of skeptical novice musicians to produce a great orchestral sound, I find that if I press too hard for perfect precision, it’s often at the cost of the group’s sense of spirit and autonomy. At best, I get a technically proficient but lifeless performance — the result of short-sighted leadership. But when I lead with a balance of head and heart, precision and improvisation, the group is more likely to deliver a performance that is memorable and moving. To get a sense of what I mean, check out this 6-minute video of my creating a cohesive percussion orchestra with 100 IT leaders. It occurs to me that effective personal and organizational leadership isn’t so much about insisting on perfection as it is about knowing when 80-percent means ready-for-testing and when it means back-to-the-drawing-board. We must learn to recognize when perfectionism truly improves a product or process, and when it traps us in inertia and mediocrity. If we always wait for 100 percent to come from us, we fail to recognize that, sometimes, that final 20 percent only happens when we, as leaders, are willing to risk failure. “Failure”, if you will, is often a necessary step toward excellence. Now, tell us what you think: Can you produce something world-class without perfectionism? At what point does the quest for perfection become counter-productive? How do you recognize this point in your work? In your leadership of others? What must change in the workplace for people to be freed up enough to get it wrong, experiment, and become more innovative? How can companies consciously create cultures that allow for this kind of exploration and provide the freedom to be “caught learning”?