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The perfection trap 

 In a crisis, when reality is changing by the day or even by the hour and when there is no way of knowing with certainty what lies ahead or the best course of action to take, there is no time for perfection, writes Rob McAlister, CRJ Advisory Panel member and Director at Glenbarr Consultancy.

If we expect to have the perfect plan in place to deal with such a complex challenge like the current global pandemic, we are going to be incredibly frustrated and disappointed with our results and the inevitable criticism this will bring.

Perfection is sometimes a worthy idea but when it comes to accomplishing our biggest objectives within crises, not achieving it is something that we need to get comfortable with.

Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization Health Emergency Programme, has been at the front lines of several global health threats, including the fight against Ebola and now the coronavirus. On managing through a crisis, he says: “If you need to be right before you move, you will lose. Speed trumps perfection. Perfection is the enemy of good when it comes to emergency management.”

Getting comfortable with the unknown: Climbing a mountain you can’t see

When looking at our biggest objectives, it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to design the perfect path forward so we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the steps we’re taking are leading us to where we want to go. The problem with this is that the bigger the goal, the bigger the unknowns.

If you’ve ever hiked up a mountain, you’ve probably encountered a ‘false peak’. For those who might be unfamiliar, when hiking up large mountains, you eventually face a hill that looks like the summit from your current perspective. It has a crest, it stands against the sky and, by all accounts, you believe it’s the end-goal. However, the closer you get to the false summit, you realise that the hill you are walking up is blocking another hill you will need to climb.

The term false peak has actually been used periodically throughout the pandemic, particularly relating to lockdowns and the light at the end of the tunnel such as the easing of current restrictions and a return to normality, whatever that may look like.

There’s no such thing as a perfect crisis management plan. As crisis leaders our days are littered with moments when we think: “I wish I would have known that sooner.” But, the trouble is that you couldn’t have known that information going in. It wouldn’t have been possible.

We know what we know. We know what we don’t know. But we don’t know what we don’t know. This type of unknown won’t show up on our radar until we come within range of them.

The emotional consequences of perfectionism include fear of making mistakes, stress from the pressure to perform and self-consciousness from feeling both self-confidence and self-doubt. All these will undoubtedly effect your performance as a crisis leader and ultimately that of any response or recovery efforts.

Learning to mess things up: A lesson on solving a Rubik’s cube

When we strive for perfection, we strive for everything to be in its proper place. However, success can usually be described as the continuing act of creating, exposing and solving problems.

If you have ever tried to solve a Rubik’s cube, you will know that the first step to solving the puzzle is fairly manageable. All you have to do is solve a single row of the puzzle, so all the colours match on one side. If you’ve made it that far, you’ve probably faced a terrible dilemma: In order to solve the next row in the puzzle, you have to muddle with the ‘perfection’ you’ve just created.

Linking this back to the mountain analogy, some false summits leave us no choice but to walk back and walk around the hill we’re standing on.

The key here is to mess our progress up in such a way that we exceed our original achievement. This can sometimes feel like complete chaos or failure, and the thought can induce so much self-doubt and anxiety that it leads many to think about shelving those decisions and actions entirely.

When looking at the goals we want to accomplish, it’s important to be mindful that most of them will require us to take one step forward and one step back so that we can then take two steps forward.

In the midst of great uncertainty, leaders across all industries are adjusting strategies and supply chains, rewriting the rules of operating and sometimes making things up as they go. This kind of leadership demands mental agility and most importantly having a cognitively diverse team supporting you which includes people who are not afraid to think differently.

Getting caught up in wanting everything to be perfect the whole way through is not realistic but can stop us from accomplishing anything at all as crisis leaders.

Robert McAlister, 01/01/2016
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