Is perfect really perfect?

Perfection is a dead end road that leads to a castle with closed doors (picture credit: lamdogjunkie on flickr)

It has become fashionable in job interviews to ask applicants about their greatest weakness. And it has become about as fashionable to answer: “Well, my biggest weakness is that I am a perfectionist.” And to go on explaining how this, obviously, is actually a strength, just hidden behind a humble face and the pretense of “yeah, it’s a weakness that I just can’t help always wanting everything to be perfect.” And who wouldn’t want a perfect employee, right?

Well, the more I work with perfectionnists, the more I realize that yes, indeed, this is a weakness – which might even become disabling to the perfectionnist and his or her colleagues. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we should all just chill and be mediocre. But I think being a good-enough-ist, a get-the-important-stuff-right-ist or a be-great-but-know-when-to-stop-ist can be much more productive, effective, and team compatible than a perfectionist.

Why? What is the problem with wanting everything to be perfect?

Well, it starts with the “everything”: If you need everything to be perfect, you can easily put as much energy, anguish and stress in a typo on the last page of the annex of a report as you put in the bigger picture issues. Which means you have problems prioritizing and, in the worst case, might run out of energy, time and resources before you get to the big issues.

And it continues with the notion of “perfect” in an imperfect world. It is common sense that you use 20% of the energy to finish a task to about 80% and the remaining 80% of the energy to get it to 100% perfection. That is a lot of energy used on incremental improvements. How much of this is really necessary? Well, that depends on what we are talking about (baking a birthday cake or open heart surgery?). But, as we have seen above, when “everything” has to be perfect, there is no way of knowing when the 100% perfection are actually needed and when a lower level is still absolutely fine.

But let me go one step further and just say it: Sometimes it is better not to be perfect! Yes, you have heard me: Sometimes a perfect product, performance or result is worse than an imperfect one. Why is that? Because perfection is a lonely state of affair. A perfect performance invites no-one, it says: “Don’t mess with this!” instead of “Come, let’s grow together!”. You have probably seen cakes that look so perfect you feel you can’t eat them, because that would mean destroying perfection – now, how perfect is that, a cake you wont eat…? So, in any situation where you are aiming at engaging others, thinking together, encouraging them to share, help and contribute (or eat the cake), a perfect presentations sends the message: “I am IT and you are my audience. Now be quiet and listen to my greatness.”

There is another risk in perfection. It encourages stagnation and the end of innovation. If, after all, this is the perfect thing, any change would make it less perfect. So, perfection is like a dead-end, a street leading nowhere but to this one beautiful house with all doors closed.

So, here’s to all the scribbling, speaking as you think, sharing before it is perfect, asking for help and getting stuff done together.

February 18th-23rd: All the Network Analysis Gurus and a Net-Map training in Tampa, Florida

T’is the time of the year again. The International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA) is hosting their annual Sunbelt conference, 750+ paralell talks, training workshops in all kinds of network tools, a rainy Florida beach and all the big names will be there. One highlight is always the “hospitality suite” – which feels like a grab-a-beer and talk nonsense kind of student party, only that all those people whose brilliant papers you admire (if you are into social network analysis) are doing the beer-grabbing and chilling…

I am still amazed at the wide range of issues that you can tackle using network analysis, from the prediction of road-side bombs in Iraq to the hat-trading and cheating behavior of people who play online games. I will teach a three hour Net-Map intro class on the afternoon of Tuesday 18th of February and otherwise just go with the flow and be inspired. Hope to see some of you there. If you do come and are a reader of this blog, please, contact me so we can have coffee.

Case Study: Analyzing the political economy of the charcoal sector in Tanzania

Charcoal Trader (copyright by Klas Sander)

Charcoal Trader (copyright by Klas Sander)



Klas Sander (World BankClemens Gros (UNICEF) and Christian Peter (World Bank) used Net-Map in this study to get a structured and reliable understanding of how the charcoal sector works and what may be done to improve it. What they find especially exciting is how Net-Map has helped them take the stories and annecdotal knowledge about the issue and turn it into validated, more structured insights.


With about 95 percent of all households in urban areas relying on charcoal to meet energy needs, charcoal is one of the most important energy sources in Tanzania. High population growth rates coupled with accelerated urban development and relative cost increases of alternative fuels indicate that the importance of charcoal is unlikely to decline in the near future. Systemic initiatives to render the sector more environmentally and economically sustainable are missing or have remained largely ineffective. A weak formal governance framework as well as regulatory overlaps and gaps are often identified as principal reasons. Nonetheless, the underlying political economy supporting and maintaining the status quo is only poorly understood and no attempt has so far been made for a formal analysis and documentation.

Applying an established methodology, this article provides a unique analysis of the political economy of the charcoal sector in Tanzania. It documents social, political, and economic explanations that existed as anecdotal evidence only and explains why a reform dialogue needs to be sensitive. While the analysis focuses on Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, it shows that findings apply to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa facing similar challenges. It provides a comprehensive example for approaching charcoal sector reforms, requiring identification of the problems and an open dialogue within and among stakeholders, new policies and a subsequent strategic decision clearly stating overarching goals and specific objectives.

What’s it worth if it doesn’t make money?

Don't dismiss these fish just because they can't fly (copyright by torbakhopper on flickr)

Don’t dismiss these fish just because they can’t fly (copyright by torbakhopper on flickr)

The new year comes with a lot of questions about where I want to go, how I want to live and love in the year to come and who I am. As my friends feel the same way, I have had a lot of interesting and inspiring conversations in the past days and here is one tought I want to share.

I was having lunch with a friend who is free-lancing and we were talking about the project that fills his heart with joy but doesn’t fill his pockets with money. As long as you are one of us, who have to work for a living, that’s a tough place to be in. Rent has to be paid. Bacon (or tofu) has to be brought home.

So, when you are in a situation like this, people may ask you: “What’s it worth if it doesn’t make money? Nice that you have a passion, but if it doesn’t pay the rent, it’s just a hobby!” Really? What do you want to be remembered for? What is going to be your little or great legacy? Maybe this burning passion of yours will change the world. Or make your neighborhood, family, dinner table a better place. It might lead you to do the most meaningful valuable things. And just because it cannot pay rent, you dismiss it?

You could make a long list of people with “hobbies” (things that didn’t pay the rent) whose passions led to legacies that long outlasted their physical existence and made the world a different place… Start with Jesus, Ghandi, Mandela, add most artists, authors and many famous scientists…

Sometimes we are in the lucky circumstances that there is a great overlap between what we are passionate about and what pays the rent. That doesn’t make our passions more valid, it just means we are lucky. If you are not in this space right now, how about uncoupling the two: Find something that is bearable enough that pays the rent. And give your passion all the respect it deserves. Instead of ridiculing it like a fish that can’t fly.

What is the one little thing you can do?

Want to eat an elephant? Take it one bite at a time (picture copyright by Phil and Pam on flickr)

Have grand New Year’s resolutions? Good for you. Had grand New Year’s resolutions last year too and abandonned them mid-January? Don’t beat yourself up, because you are not alone. But if you want to do better this year, ask yourself: What is the one little thing I can do to move toward my goal? Do that one thing and allow yourself to be proud of yourself. Whether it is: always take the stairs at the office (while your grand resolution was to become a triathlete) or try meatless Mondays once a month (while your grand resolution was to become a vegetarian and loose 50 pounds). Once you see that you can do it, ask yourself: What is the next one little thing I can do?

I recently learned how looking for the one little thing can help you from being overwhelmed if the challenges seem too large to tackle. I guided a colleague through drawing a personal happiness Net-Map, mapping out who influences her personal happiness. Then, as we looked at a messy network of friends, family and colleagues who provided support or sucked energy, it felt like this was too much to even start taking doing anything. By asking for the one little thing we understood that you can eat an elephant one bite at a time. As long as you get started (if eating an elephant is your goal you might skip the meatless Mondays though…)

New Year’s Resolution: This year I won’t take the caterpillar approach to personal growth

New Year's Resolution: This year I won't take the caterpillar approach to personal growth

I cannot fly! I know that from experience!

5 ways how drawing helps you think better

5 ways visual thinking complete

In the past year I have taken a deep dive into visual thinking and finally, seven years after developing Net-Map in the hot, dusty North of Ghana, I understood why it leads to the insights and transformations it facilitates. And that is because there is something special about visualizing what you know – as compared to merely saying or writing it down.

So how – and why – is drawing different from using words alone to work through problems?

1. When drawing, you work with all you have

5 ways visual thinking heart

This means: you answer your questions not only with your rational brain, but ad what your heart and hands have to say as well. This allows you to tap into your intuitive and tacit knowledge in a way that is difficult to reach with words alone. Often the greatest insights happen when teams look at the network picture afterward and realize they drew things they didn’t even know they knew.

2.  Drawing helps you see the forest and the trees

5 ways visual thinking trees

When you use words to talk about an issue you normally have to choose the level of detail at which you want to describe it. Looking at a picture you can step back and come closer in a second, taking in both, the forest and the trees. When dealing with complex, multistakeholder issues, it is important to be able to see the detail (What does this mean for one of my stakeholders?) and the big picture (What are the larger, political implications?).

3.  Words are sequential, pictures can show everything at once

5 ways visual thinking big picture

When you use words you start with the first sentence, then the next and the next, one after another. While this has the benefit of clearly guiding your listener through the story, this linear way of looking at a problem can keep you from seeing the big picture. And, because you cannot see everything at once, you won’t see larger patterns or connections that are not obvious. This is what a picture allows you to do.

4. Drawing and sharing pictures helps you clarify

5 ways visual thinking clarify

When drawing it is much more difficult to get lost in buzz words. When our teams struggle to agree on how the arrows flow between actors on their Net-Map, they are forced to be specific and explicit. In the process, they often unearth areas of confusion or disagreement.

5.  Drawing helps groups think together out of the box

 5 ways visual thinking outside box

When we do things the way we always do them (e.g. writing a plan) we tend to think what we always think. Our brain is happy to follow the routine and produce the same old and familiar solutions. As we start doing things differently (e.g. drawing a network instead of writing a list) we start discovering new ideas and solutions together.

If you want to learn more about the power of visual thinking, Dan Roam’s book “Blahblahblah, What to do when words don’t work” is a great introduction. And if you are convinced you cannot draw, this explanation to  drawing a stick figure can get you started.