Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


July 01, 2013

Note to readers: This post originally appeared on the Gates Foundation's internal staff blog.

Perfection is rare. Perfectionism is more common and extremely destructive. We have a perfectionism problem at the foundation, but I think we can do something about it.

I know what you’re thinking. “That’s easy for him to say. Tell my manager.”

I have two responses.

First, I am telling your manager. I know that our tilt toward perfectionism starts at the top, trickles down, and seeps into everything. So I am having conversations on this topic with the Management Committee and making sure it’s a priority at all levels of the organization. Melinda, who’s been talking a lot lately about the “80/20 rule,” is helping me emphasize this point with our leaders.

Second, I want to dissect perfectionism a bit so that we can start coming to a shared understanding of what we are fighting against.

You’ve heard me talk before about “Bill Ready”—the idea that you can somehow acquire every single number and fact so that when Bill asks a question, you can point to your appendix and avoid a difficult conversation.

The truth is, we can’t avoid difficult conversations, because the work we do is hard and complex.  We have to welcome rigorous intellectual dialogue with each other and our partners.

Rigor, though, doesn’t mean having every answer. It means engaging others in your sometimes messy thought process. The focus needs to be on analyzing and challenging big ideas, not which facts you have memorized.

Another example of perfectionism at work: One of the most important things we can do is prioritize. However, a perfectionist bent that says we should cover everything exhaustively leads us away from making hard choices about what matters. A memo infected by perfectionism includes every detail but doesn’t do what a memo should do: help readers know where to focus their attention (and where not to).

Perfectionism can make people feel lousy. It also distorts our approach to our work. When we start with the goal of getting the right answer, we are likely to formulate narrow questions.  We aspire to help solve some of the world’s toughest problems. To succeed, we need to take risks, and the potential for failure is inherent in risk-taking.  But we must embody our value of optimism, and remember that even if our grants or strategies don’t fully succeed, we only really fail if we don’t learn.

Bill taught me a great lesson about perfection in 1984. I was in charge of marketing Microsoft Office. At the beginning of the year, we released Multiplan (the forerunner of Excel) for the Apple Macintosh, which was a big breakthrough for our business. Then, in February, we found a serious bug in the software. We needed to recall it, at a cost of $300,000. I had to go explain what happened to Bill.

Picture it if you can. I was 25 years old. I really thought security might pick me up after the meeting and show me the door for good.  After I walked Bill through our mistake, there was an intimidating silence. “We came in to work today and lost $300,000,” he said, finally. “Come in tomorrow and do better.” He understood that we were doing things that had never been done before. He expected a lot from us, but one thing he didn’t expect was zero mistakes.

It is up to me and our leaders to do what Bill did for me 30 years ago, to prove that we can walk the walk about perfectionism, and not just talk the talk. But we also have to recognize that the push for perfectionism can be self-imposed. We have an “over-achiever” frame of mind. As individuals, when we get obsessed with the details, we have to take a step back and remember the bigger picture. I wrote this blog now because it’s important to have these principles in mind when you think about goal-setting. If you want to be perfect, you might unconsciously set goals you know you can achieve. But if you achieve all your goals every year, that’s a bad sign. That’s perfectionism insidiously making you less effective than you should be, encouraging you to lower your ambitions.

If you have thoughts on this subject, please email me. Tell me how the incentive structure in your job encourages perfection. Tell me specifically how you think I can help. I think this is part of getting our culture right, and I am committed to it.

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