I was bowled over recently by a speech our school district superintendent, Steve Cochrane, delivered at my daughter's high school graduation. Fully expecting the standard "the world is your oyster" address full of cliches and soppy aphorisms, I was caught off guard when he launched into a story about the district's music program audit. Steve related that while the audit team, made up of statewide music directors and academics, was extremely impressed by the quality of the district's program, the team ended its report with a question that challenged the district's musical directors: "Are you striving for perfection or improvisation?"

Steve went on to draw parallels between musical performers excelling at hitting every note versus those riffing on improvisational themes and students getting straight As while carefully walking a prescribed academic and life path to those who, while not achieving the highest GPA, were engaging in activities and making life choices that broadened their experience and personal skills by exposing themselves to challenges unavailable to the former group of students. This was a pretty gutsy theme to deliver to a roomful of students and parents who, to put it mildly, were type-A academic achievers falling on the higher end of the OCD spectrum.

I couldn't help but draw some parallels of my own based on my experience as an in-house creative team leader. Often in-house groups who embrace the improvisational non-linear iterative tenets of design thinking, find themselves at odds with a left-brained, risk-averse corporate culture of perfectionism dominated by excessive analysis, process and metrics all designed to ensure the best possible outcome with the least amount of mistakes and missteps--basically the clash of a group that prioritizes improvisation with a corporate community that prioritizes perfectionism. I'd add to this a more recent concerning phenomenon I've observed (and even been a part of) where in-house teams, in their quest to raise their stature and relevance within their organizations, are sliding toward the mindset of perfectionism.

There are definitely short-term and incremental benefits inherent in the perfectionist paradigm, but in today's business environment where change is constant and the "adapt or die" truism is now more relevant than ever before, foregoing a culture of improvisation is a sure-fire path to ultimate failure. It's critical that internal creative teams fight the internal urge and the external push towards perfectionism and embrace and aggressively advocate for improvisation.

Specifically, there are at least two counterproductive perfectionist practices that creatives should take issue with: excessive analysis (with emphasis on the word excessive) and operational standardization and rigidity.

Pre-executional analysis is an all-too-common perfectionist practice that can lead to organizational failure. In simplest terms, analysis coupled with preplanning can all-too-often be undertaken with the intention of presupposing the conditions of a needed solution to a business challenge. A good example of this is the anecdote about determining where to put sidewalks on a college campus. Site planners can look at a campus map and apply models that may (or may not) predict where students most likely will walk when going from building to building. The fact is, though, that these are educated guesses than can take much time, labor and money to determine and, even then, they might be wrong. Better to not preplan the pathways and discover over time where to place the walkways by observing where and how the campus grass gets worn down by use. This is analogous to the pilot and prototype practices that are a central component of design thinking.

While the practice of analyzing data to predict outcomes is not a showstopper for organizations, the sheer volume of analysis that often occurs in businesses is. Commonly referred to as "analysis paralysis," this addiction to capturing data, modeling it, establishing metrics and reporting on them and conducting assessments and then parsing those findings can literally cause organizations to grind to a halt and enter a state of complete inaction as competitors and the marketplace pass them by.

Operational "best practices" including the creation and enforcement of SOPs (standard operating procedures), SLAs (service level agreements), OLAs (operating level agreements), team hierarchies and operational policies and procedures that are put in place with the intention of ensuring consistent outcomes produced efficiently and with minimal mistakes are another example of potential perfectionist dysfunction. This culture is appropriate and applicable to organizations with fixed inputs and outputs. The problem is that creative teams need to temper these practices because these groups are consistently engaged in a variety of projects of varying complexity and mediums, and more importantly, the larger organizations in which they exist, in order to be competitive, are also having to mix up their product and service offerings--often in very short timeframes. This means that forcing or enforcing rigid operational mandates on these groups will be counterproductive at best and a business train wreck at worst. The most appropriate approach is to create guidance that allows for operational flexibility in the form of high-level SOPs, OLAs and guidelines that carefully separate out instances where judgment calls are the best approach from firm mandates where policies and process are critical to the success of the team's projects.

An inflexible firmly established operational culture doesn't allow for these teams and the larger organization to quickly self-organize and reorganize themselves and their means of execution to best meet the problems and initiatives at hand. A process, team structure or group of policies that worked one day for one type of initiative may be completely irrelevant to a new project the next day. Providing a looser operational framework and guidelines is the best approach to empowering a group to appropriately define and execute on a business challenge. The caveat is that increased due diligence is critical when initiating the project. This means the team needs to rigorously research and define the problem and ensure that everyone is aligned on the goal so that there is enough guidance for the team to properly adapt itself to the project at hand.

Improvisation when applied to the formation and reformation of teams, the establishment of new operational practices and the creation of a culture that values an iterative workflow and incorporates prototyping and pilots to test out new ideas is a much more appropriate mindset for today's organization than a perfectionist way of being. Creative teams are innately improvisers and they can and should lead the way in establishing an improvisational culture to supplant the perfectionist paradigms that most likely currently exist in their organizations.