I used to think being perfect was a desirable and achievable goal. It seemed to be the epitome of professional competence.
I never questioned the legitimacy of this goal and spent years as a professional trying to achieve perfection of different skills, subjects, and leadership. Over the years, I began to realize that perfection is overrated and unachievable.
This epiphany began when I realized I wasn’t living in a closed system anymore. Closed systems can be controlled because the number of variables is finite. It might take time to understand all the elements of a system, but eventually, they can become known. Once known, we can learn the perfect response to this set of static variables.
However, sometime in the ‘90s, I realized that the number of people who believed they could tell me how to do my job jumped. This told me that the boundaries between my organization and the external environment were becoming permeable. As these boundaries disappeared, I realized I was working in an open system, not a closed one. Open systems are dynamic and the variables that we need to understand the system continue to expand. There are wild cards, problems that mutate, and systems bumping into each other that make things unpredictable. This is when I realized that perfection had a short shelf life.
Perfection Has a Short Shelf Life
In a closed system, we could practice for years and when we achieved perfection, we would be able to have it for the rest of our career in that subject or capacity. Therefore, it was worth it to spend five or ten years perfecting an approach, skill, or leadership style because we would then be perfect for 20 or 30 years after that. In an open system, perfection doesn’t work that way. Open systems are dynamic and the number of things that we need to consider continually expand. The context of open systems is always changing. In an open system, we can pursue perfection, but once achieved, it will only last for 10 seconds before something changes in the system, and what we think of as perfection is no longer a good fit for the context.
Lessons From Nature
When I focused on the lessons that nature could teach us about leading an interdependent, dynamic, open system, I realized that nature had a lot to teach us about experimentation as a substitute for perfection.
1. Nature experiments all the time, but only replicates what works
Experimentation is a very different kind of pursuit than trying to become perfect. Experimentation is about trying different things, it expands possibilities and depends on learning to see what works. Perfection is about narrowing options and getting closer to a specific end. Over time it creates rigidity in our thinking and approach and shuts down innovation and risk-taking.
2. Nature Fits Form to Function
Because nature is a dynamic system, it continually changes form to fit the larger function or purpose that the system is designed to serve. Just because we have invested in a specific form isn’t a good enough reason for nature to keep it going. Think of a stream that starts as snow melts and changes form as it works its way toward the pull of sea level. It changes form as needed. It doesn’t attach to a specific form. Perfection is an attachment to form. When the context changes, it no longer fits the function and needs to be let go.
Nature continually adapts and learns. It is always evolving. In its 3.8 billion years, it has let go of billions of forms in service of its larger purpose to create conditions conducive to the life of future generations. Clearly, nature’s ability to adapt and learn is successful and effective because we still have life on this planet. In nature, perfection is not the goal, evolution is. Therefore, nature experiments and adapts by design. We would be wise to apply this lesson to our professional development. Let go of the desire to be perfect and instead, focus on experimenting, adapting, learning, and enjoying the dynamic nature of our organizations.
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. She writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership based on lessons from nature and living systems at www.kathleenallen.net.