The casualty of exactness

I can be a stickler for detail. More than once my wife has called me “Mr. Exactitude” after correcting a detail in a conversation we might be having. She even bought a replica of the famous Exactitude poster by Pierre Fix-Masseau now on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a humorous reminder.

The casualty of exactness

Spotting flaws and appreciating the detail in an analysis is an important skill that can avoid costly mistakes and improve decision making. Used carelessly, however and it becomes a weapon of destruction, destroying motivation and undermining creativity.

A number of years ago, one of my direct reports had finished a report I had asked him to prepare and had come to my office to hand deliver it. As I leafed through its many pages, it was obvious he had put a lot of work into it. The look of satisfaction on his face as he delivered it to me quickly turned to one of exasperation, however, when I asked him about a chart that in the middle of the report.

“Damn you,” he said. “You haven’t even read the report and you’ve already found something wrong with it.” Snatching the report from my hands, he headed back to his office to correct the mistake.

That experience left an impression on me. I missed an opportunity to praise a far greater accomplishment by drawing attention to a small flaw. I’ve since come to appreciate G.K. Chesterton’s famous turn of phrase, “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” There’s more to celebrate in an idea coming to life than its perfect execution.

How might your exacting standards be stifling your own creativity or that of others?

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