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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Lerner

Is a culture of perfectionism killing your startup?

Is your team playing it safe? Here's how to find out, and what to do about it.

I recently published a guide to running growth sprints in the First Round Review. It walks you through the entire process step-by-step. (Basically Chapter 6 from my new book).

But it won’t work for everyone. (And, as the founder, that's probably your fault.)

A  team can run 1,000 experiments and find nothing if they play it safe.

I’ve worked with over 200 startups, some find huge wins, others don’t. Why? The difference — every time — stems from the leaders’ mindset.

Successful teams have the confidence to view new information as an opportunity; weak teams see it as a threat.

Here's how it plays out

“Is that statistically significant?" (Perfectionsists focus on marginal improvements.)

“Look, if it had a big impact, we wouldn’t be arguing about confidence intervals. We need to be bold."

The big picture: Growth experiments aren’t just to lower your CPA or bag a few new logos. We need to answer a fundamental question: 

How are we going to really grow this business?

If there were an obvious way to hyper-grow your startup, you'd already be doing it. If you’re not, then you need to test bold things to find one.

The Root Cause of Perfectionism

You can tell them 'be bold' until you're blue in the face, if they think their jobs are on the line, they're going to avoid risks. This is a deep cultural issue.

How to know if your team is playing it safe

Reflect back on these last few weeks, and answer these questions honestly:

  • How often did your team surprise you with new customer insights?

  • How often did they challenge your strategy with new information about the market? Are they even comfortable challenging you?

  • Last time an experiment failed, how did that conversation go? Did your team talk about what they learned? What they’ll do differently next time? Are people comfortable talking about their mistakes?

  • Is each misstep making you smarter and moving you closer to success? 

If your current strategy isn’t working, and you’re not learning from it, it isn’t going to magically start working.

How to fix this (without firing everyone)

You can run experiment after experiment, but you’ll struggle to get a big lift unless you have the intellectual honesty to examine your beliefs critically and allow your riskiest assumptions to be tested.

I mean your sacred cows – those bold claims you sold to your investors.

Your people won't like being wrong, it’s scary and uncomfortable. When something doesn’t work, that’s the moment of truth. How do you handle that?

It's deflating at first. But with time, you build a new kind of confidence: Less "I know we're right." More "I know we can figure it out."

Remember, the process ends with growth, but it starts with learning.

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