I saw a great quote on a wall while visiting a business in Dallas this week:
“Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” – Mark Twain
I love this quote. Although I can’t speak to whether or not this is actually something Mark Twain wrote, the heart of its message captures so many important themes.
However, perfection—even delayed perfection—really is just a myth.
This side of eternity, whether we are thinking about growth and improvement individually, as a team, or as an organization, if we are waiting for perfection, we will always be waiting. Rather than waiting for something—perfection in this life—that will not come in the pursuit of excellence, we rather need to work toward ongoing growth.
Remember, excellence and perfection are not the same thing. If we are striving for excellence, growth, and improvement, the best path forward is not waiting for some unattainable moment of perfection, but rather starting the journey and then learning and growing along the way.
Another way of talking about this dynamic is to contrast linear growth and iterative growth.
Traditional wisdom invites those starting a work project or large journey to engage in a process of extensive planning. The goal in this linear mindset is to do all of the planning for the project up front. Those involved with this first step must foresee all possible needs, opportunities, and obstacles, and then solidify a plan before proceeding.
After this “perfect” plan is in place, it is time to move on to the second step—executing on the plan.
Experience has a way of revealing the limits in such a linear model. Once a plan is executed, reality begins to confront and challenge our plans. John Steinbeck pointed to this in his novel Of Mice and Men—the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
In contrast to linear models of growth, many fields—like software development and design—are now emphasizing the power of iterative processes. Rather than one discrete step of planning followed by another discrete step of implementation, an iterative approach embraces a path of ongoing improvement. The process of planning and implementing is repeated again and again as ongoing learning takes place, continually informing planning and improved practice in an ongoing manner.
As you consider your own process of personal growth, and as you consider growth as a team or organization, don’t put all of your proverbial eggs in the basket of a single plan. Instead, lean into iterative learning. Make a plan; implement the plan; learn from this implementation; adjust your plan; implement this learning; and continue this cycle of learning in an ongoing plan of growth and improvement.
Since perfection is ultimately a myth, learn to embrace the reality that “continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.”
I’d love to read some of your reflections; take a moment to share them below.