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Published: September 26, 2013

 
 

How to Sidestep the Excellence Trap

Rita Gunther McGrath, author of The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving as Fast as Your Business, introduces a passage about when—and when not—to demand excellence from Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits That Masquerade as Virtues, by Jake Breeden.

“Don’t bring me any surprises. Don’t bring me a problem without a solution.” Do these phrases sound familiar? They are manifestations of a managerial mind-set that Jake Breeden rightly calls out in his new book, Tipping Sacred Cows, as an unhealthy obsession with excellence. The demand that employees get everything right is deadly for innovation, experimentation, and discovery. When excellence is defined as living in a world of no surprises, you aren’t going to get any…until it’s too late.

For innovation to thrive, you need a little messiness, a tolerance for intelligent failures, and a willingness to engage in trial-and-error learning. As the Lean Startup movement is proving, you’ll discover more from launching a “minimum viable product” than you will from conducting seemingly endless prelaunch analyses. When it comes to communicating your ideas, you’ll make a bigger splash with a quick, colorful story, replete with mistakes, than a thick deck of perfectly formatted PowerPoint slides. And when it comes to keeping people energized and engaged, you’ll get much better results by focusing their creativity on a few key things than by cajoling them to be excellent at thousands of small ones. Breeden’s advice for making a conscious decision about where excellence matters and where it doesn’t is extraordinarily pertinent.

Rita Gunther McGrath


An excerpt from chapter 5 of Tipping Sacred Cows:
Kick the Bad Work Habits That Masquerade as Virtues



Ella ran a team responsible for marketing a drug for a large pharmaceutical company. Ella held herself and her team to the same high standards. She choreographed product launch events with the same relentless attention to detail that had driven her academic success. After earning a PhD in biology from Stanford and an MBA at Harvard, Ella had a long track record of striving for high standards. So Ella was shocked when her boss took her aside to tell her she was in danger of receiving a poor annual review. For the first few seconds of the conversation, all she could hear was the sound of her own heartbeat thumping in her chest. She replayed all of the sacrifices she had made for her job, and she was outraged. What else did he want from her?

“Ella, I think you thrive on intensity,” her boss said. “But things aren’t just intense on your team. They’re tense.”

As her pulse finally slowed, Ella realized that the one professional value she treasured most—excellence—had backfired. In school and in the early part of her career, Ella’s obsession with producing the best work had always paid off. But something was broken now. Armed with this insight, Ella applied her well-developed “excellence muscle” to the new task of creating a more supportive culture and making it safer for her team to ask for help. She started to listen more to her team and less to the relentless voice inside her head demanding that every action be perfect. Ella didn’t need to lower her standards—she needed to raise her game.

“Excellence not only kills ideas, it kills energy.” –Jake Breeden, Tipping Sacred Cows

High achievers like Ella sometimes obsess over excellence to the point of missing the bigger picture. Smart leaders understand that a maniacal focus on excellence can lead to blind obsession that lowers productivity and derails careers. But Ella was lucky enough to have a leader who helped her see her blind spot, and she was smart enough to learn to keep her high standards but broaden her perspective.

If you ever need to kill someone’s point in an argument, just whip out the mighty sword of excellence. It’s the strongest weapon leaders have to win debates. “We need to protect our brand” is a nice way to frame it. Or if that doesn’t work, blame someone else: “Our customers deserve better than this.” Or invoke a higher power: “The CEO of this company won’t accept lowering our standards, and neither will I.” And if you need to buttress your argument with a pithy quote from a great leader, you have many to choose from. If you want to quote an American sports hero, use Vince Lombardi: “I will demand a commitment to excellence and to victory, and that is what life is all about.” If you prefer a military hero, choose Colin Powell: “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”

 
 
 
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The Reviewer

  1. Rita Gunther McGrath is a professor at Columbia Business School and dean of the fellows of the Strategic Management Society. She is the author of four books, including The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving as Fast as Your Business  (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013) and Discovery-Driven Growth: A Breakthrough Process to Reduce Risk and Seize Opportunity  (with Ian C. MacMillan, Harvard Business Press, 2009).

This Book

  1. Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits That Masquerade as Virtues (Jossey-Bass, 2013), by Jake Breeden

    Jake Breeden is a faculty member of Duke Corporate Education who has taught leaders from companies including Microsoft, Cisco, Google, and IBM. Tipping Sacred Cows is his first book.

 
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