It has struck me over the course of my career that our creativity levels can vary drastically. And some people are much better at maintaining the flow of creativity to innovate consistently. Variation in creativity levels has very little to do with our innate abilities. Rather, it has a lot to do with our tendency to shut down the valves on our innovation pipeline.
By innovation pipeline, I am not referring to some corporate diagram illustrating the status of our R&D projects. Rather, I am referring to the intellectual pipeline inside each of us, our teams, and our organizations. It is expressed by our capacity to be creative at any given moment.
Our creativity flows through the innovation pipeline when we are most at ease and absorbed in our work. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this being in the “flow," in his book, “Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience.” Conversely, we close down our mental valves when we feel constricted. Such constrictions create conditions in which we cannot trust the creative process and/or we cannot unfurl the creative process to begin with.
What is the creative process? At its very foundation, the creative process involves brainstorming, prototyping our ideas, and validating these with customers and stakeholders. These steps are repeated through multiple iterations until we come up with a successful innovation.
There are several ways in which we stifle the creative process and shut down the valves on our innovation pipeline. I hope to cover most of these in good time. Today, however, I want to talk about perfectionism in particular.
Perfectionists Expect that High Standards will lead to High Quality Outcomes
Perfectionism is a tendency to hold oneself up to an exceptionally high standard with the expectation that this will lead to exceptionally high quality results. It is a very common mindset in our society, especially among those who received high grades at school, attended high-ranking universities, and those we call A-type personalities.
Not all perfectionism is bad. It can be a motivator to create something outstanding, iterate more effectively throughout our innovation process, and make significant improvements over the status quo.
However, the predominant form of perfectionism frequently does not lead to exceptionally high quality results with respect to creativity and innovation. To understand why, let's look at the typical perfectionist mindset in some detail.
Again, perfectionists are very focused on a high-quality outcome. However, the human mind is not able to predict an outcome in the absence of sufficient data. And that is where the trouble comes in, as the creative process requires that we generate a lot of bad ideas and ugly designs before we refine them into something beautiful. Evidence of bad ideas and ugly designs can send a perfectionist into a state of panic if he/she has insufficient experience with the creative process and cannot foresee that further iteration could lead to a very high quality outcome.
Perfectionism Combined with a Fixed Mindset is a Recipe for Disaster
Further problems will arise if the perfectionist also has a “fixed mindset.” The term, “fixed mindset,” was coined by Carol Dweck, author of, "Mindset; The New Psychology of Success." Dweck explains that the fixed mindset believes that one's abilities (intelligence, creativity, etc) are fixed and cannot be improved. As a result of this belief, the fixed mindset will go to great lengths to preserve its self-concept (e.g. I am smart, or I am creative). It is also deeply absorbed in preserving its personal reputation in the world and not looking bad in front of others.
The fixed-mindset perfectionist is especially unwilling to sit with bad ideas and ugly designs because they threaten the self concept. What is being generated is not good and, in a fixed-mindset world, reflects poorly on the abilities of the creator (be it individual or team). In an effort to achieve brilliance, the fixed-mindset perfectionist will self-censor his/her work, become paralyzed in the creative process, stop following process entirely, and/or throw the baby out with the bathwater.
There are other downsides to having a fixed-mindset. Dweck reports that a person operating within a fixed mindset (perfectionist or not) is likely to go to extreme lengths to look good. He/she will avoid taking on difficult tasks, give up easily when the going gets tough, lie about his/her performance, blame others, and create a litany of excuses in the face of failure. None of these behaviors are supportive of creativity or innovation. They stunt the creative process and shut down the valves of our innovation pipeline.
How to Overcome Fixed-Mindset Perfectionism
Fixed-mindset perfectionism can be overcome. To do this, first, examine whether your individual and/or organization mindset is a fixed mindset. Here are some things to consider:
Are you telling yourself that your abilities, intelligence, or capacity is fixed?
Does your company send out this message on an organizational level by giving preference to employees with perfect grades, ivy-league schools, and impeccable resumes?
Is it common on your team to blame others when something goes wrong?
Does your organization punish failure or does it value and support employees with such seasoned experience under their belt?
Second, look for the signs of perfectionism in the dynamics of your process:
Are you engaging in self-censorship as soon as you put pen to paper?
Are you or your team members not following the creative process (i.e. brainstorming, prototyping, and validating) because you are so worried about the final outcome?
Once you identify the signs of fixed-mindset perfectionism, you can develop better policies and habits on a personal, team, and organizational level to overcome them. One such habit is to start viewing the creative process as inevitably encompassing bad-ideas and ugly-designs. And to be perfectly okay with that. The key is to keep going, even if it means trying something over and over again; you have to trust that creativity and innovation will follow.