Many professionals are perfectionists, always striving for an elusive measure of quality and beauty in their work.  For them, there’s a right way and wrong way for achieving all results.  A little more time, a little more effort, and the final product will be better – closer to perfect.

At times, this desire for perfection makes sense. In designing and building structures for instance, there is often a right and wrong way to proceed.  There are visible examples of projects gone wrong. Engineers know well that done poorly, foundations will crack, roads buckle, and bridges fall down. Scientists who subvert the sound methodologies of experimental analysis achieve results that aren’t verifiable or repeatable – and thus aren’t worth much. Business consultants who shortchange their assessment efforts often then jump too quickly to inappropriate conclusions and misdirected solutions. In many areas of professional practice, there is a right way and wrong way for thinking, acting, and doing.

But business problems are different. Unlike technical matters, there’s rarely just one right answer, one pathway to success. Indeed, there may be obvious wrong approaches –those that break the law, violate ethical standards or safety rules, or defy the organization’s non-negotiable core values. Beyond these, most business situations present at least a few – and often a myriad – of possible successful options. There’s more than one good answer to most business problems.

In this context, the professional’s desire for perfection is a liability. All of that education, training, and experience suggesting a one best answer – leads too often to no action at all. The options, uncertainty, and lack of clarity instead encourage the professional (and the organization) towards inaction, further study, procrastination.

I’d like to suggest a different model for execution and performance success in business: baseball.

In baseball there are many ways to create and contribute value – pitching, hitting, fielding. The best of professional players rarely excel in more than two of these, and many are really good at just one. And there are a myriad of ways to achieve in each category.  Successful pitchers include starters, closers, and middle inning relievers.  Some throw fastballs, others off-speed stuff, some just junk. These aren’t simply examples of different service expertise – like the difference between environmental attorneys and corporate lawyers – they are different paths to a defined and specific end result – winning the game.

More importantly, success in baseball comes not through perfection, but persistence. Careers aren’t made in a single game (unless it’s October), but instead develop over the long haul, of many seasons and years. Pitchers have good outings, followed by bad ones.  Fielders make mistakes at regular intervals, but keep at it.  Batters swing and miss, and strikeout rather often. Few quit after a poor experience, and none allow the possibility of failure to prevent their participation.  Instead, baseball players live for another day – and another chance for success, redemption, and glory.  Baseball is a game of stick-to-it-ness, of continued effort and investment.

Here’s the punch line, and why the baseball analogy is powerful in the business context: in baseball, if (over the course of a career) a hitter ‘gets it right’ just one out of every three attempts – he’s likely headed to the Hall of Fame. That .333 average is about as good as it gets.  What counts most is persistence, consistency, and longevity – moving past failure, living for another day, continued focus, practice, and effort. What counts is not analysis and posturing – but playing.

The success benchmarks for pitchers and fielders are slightly different, but you get the point. Some Hall of Fame pitchers have just a few less losses than they do wins. Most fielders have scores of errors to their name, along with thousands of successful fielding attempts as well. Again it’s not the failures – the mistakes made – that define success, but the player’s (or leader’s) return to the action and continued involvement that matters most.

Can your own business performance (and that of your firm) benefit from this thinking – and the model of baseball?  With technical accuracy and precision, law and ethics, and in personal and public safety – by all means do pursue perfection and the elimination of mistakes. But in the areas of business performance – vision and strategy definition and implementation; marketing and sales;  operations and project management; and people and leadership development  – how about less focus on the perfect answer, and more focus on an acceptable, satisficing solution, and then more effort in getting going, on decisive action?  General George Patton once advised that “a good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” Patton wasn’t perfect, but you’d have to put him on the list for the military Hall of Fame.

How about you and your firm?

Batter up!


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