Leading disruption is a never-ending and iterative journey. You can't move forward if you keep waiting for perfection.
Imagine if Wonder Woman waited until she had full knowledge of the context of World War I before joining the battle? Or what if she spent months, leaving no stone unturned, as she plotted a path to victory over Ares? The war would have escalated and Ares would have been left undeterred and uninterrupted in his mission to extinguish mankind.
In the aptly named Wonder Woman: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Deborah Spar, rejects that today’s power women need to keep the myth of having-it-all-perfection alive. To apply this insight to startups, we must consider one of entrepreneurship's most important dynamics: If you want to lead disruption, you must favour progress over perfection. You have no choice. Let’s get you started with three examples to inspire and enable you to move beyond an obsession with perfection and toward a mindset that holds progress at its core.
Go for the big ask
Individual contributors, particularly women, feel immense pressure to produce perfect work with perfect results. That’s where Adrienne Penta, senior vice president and executive director of the Centre for Women & Wealth (CW&W) at Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH), found herself when she went from working on her own to leading a team. “I made this leap later in my career. I spent most of my time working directly with clients to leading a national program. I struggle most with giving others autonomy on projects without intervening,” says Penta.
While she still finds it difficult to ‘give away’ work, she has, by necessity, evolved her role into advising and guiding versus doing. This is especially true when it comes to addressing initiatives that are not going perfectly. “A quick action to fix a problem usually leads to a stopping point, instead of a path forward. Refrain from immediate action. Rally your troops and consider all options,” says Penta.
Penta’s advice for accelerating progress by letting go of perfection: force a focus on progress by going in for the big ask. After presenting her first CW&W business plan, a former BBH managing partner told her that in order to make a big impact, she had to think big.
"I realised that we couldn’t prioritise perfection in executing a big plan,” says Penta.
Incremental progress is the only path to innovation
Nothing disrupts a woman’s desire for perfection more than joining the startup ecosystem. When Ashley Lucas, currently Director of Babson College’s WINLab program in Boston, cut her teeth by leading teams toward specific goals and objectives within the confines of a business plan, she leaned on several levers to control hardline deliverables, employing a black-and-white approach to leading. When she entered that constantly evolving ecosystem, Lucas had to replace behaviours geared toward perfection with ones favouring progress. “Instead of leading through strict structure and to-do lists, I learned to lead from a place of curiosity and empathy,” she says.
Without any prior experience, Lucas took a job leading national business development for a 35,000-member startup. She was the first to hold the position. There was no manual or roadmap, yet she could not waste time in making fast progress. “I began to understand that the only path forward was to launch pilot after pilot, collect feedback as I went, and start all over again with the next version. I made the right product faster, generated revenue more quickly, and continued to build the company with each passing turn,” says Lucas.
Lucas’ advice for accelerating progress by letting go of perfection: treat incremental progress as the only pathway to innovation. “At the WINLab, we teach our entrepreneurs to use a Babson pedagogy called Entrepreneurial Thought and Action. The approach prescribes experiments, prototypes, and gathering feedback to continuously build a better version based on what their customers want,” she says.
Redefine factors of success
When I first started studying women in public technology and life sciences company boards, it became clear that these incredible executives did not achieve positions that so few people ever do because they were perfect. They were invited to go where so few people, let alone women, have gone because they earned the experience and exposure it takes to lead industry disruption. Some were early founders of industries that are now worth billions while others created new innovations that we count on every day.
One of my research participants, who played a seminal role in commercialising the forensic science industry, shared the importance of employing the scientific method she used in the lab for building her business. Disruption often means creating innovation by looking at problems and opportunities through a different lens. The executive challenged her team to create a path for innovation based on answering very specific questions, which naturally led to more questions. Each answer was used to build toward the next.
My advice for making empathy your super power: reward learning as you would any other achievement. The only environment that sets the foundation for innovative disruption is one that provides for a continuous opportunity for growth. Reward your team as they find innovative ways to interact and learn from customers, to get exposed to emerging technologies, and to get their hands dirty trying to bring new ideas to fruition.
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