The Potential of Imperfect Partnership

A reflection from Sarah Lampe and the Trailhead team

The pandemic has been a time that has stretched communities and organizations beyond their capacities and beyond their limits. I would love to say “We tried our best and there were mistakes, but we learned and everything will get better,” but that is not always necessarily true. Mistakes are made in all of our work. We are humans. We are imperfect in nature, and with this comes a knowing that we will try to improve and it will be messy. 

Last month, we shared that we’re learning from a set of regenerative design principles as we deepen our understanding of how our journey to become a regenerative organization intersects with dismantling white supremacy work culture.  We also committed to sharing how we’re translating these learnings into practice here at Trailhead. 

The expectation of perfection is one such ideal that is steeped in white supremacy culture that is deeply harmful and adds fuel to the widespread burnout being experienced throughout our field. 

This feels especially true as an organization that provides operational and fiscal support to partnerships statewide. There’s a certain expectation of perfection set on operations and finance that is not only unrealistic, but impossible to uphold. This is perpetuated by the very systems and structures meant to protect us as an organization such as audits, federal regulations and compliance measures.  If we make mistakes, they aren’t only documented; they are posted publicly for everyone to see. And yet, we recognize there are reasons this perfection is expected: operations and finance are the structures that ensure people are paid, are able to sustain their livelihood and can feel pride in their work and ability to provide for themselves, their families and their communities.

Throughout history, organizations have been described as machines. We still use mechanical language to describe how we work: words like bandwidth, churn, leverage and pivot have become commonplace terms alongside phrases like ‘get our wheels turning’ and  ‘running like a well-oiled machine.’  This is a problem. Machines crank out what is needed, unfailingly. But organizations are made up of humans who will inevitably make mistakes. So errors are made and those errors affect and impact other humans.

In the middle of this contradiction of expected perfection of humans is our organization – an organization striving to be regenerative; to turn the mechanical intention of organizational culture on its head. At the same time, we are also the center of operations and finance for partnerships and people across our state. For all current-world expectations, we cannot be a place that fails, learns and fails again because our errors create hardships for the people we serve. But we also know that an organization that values  machine-like perfectionism over human-centered holism perpetuates the harm we have known in a culture centered in white supremacy. 

We are an organization that exists in the middle of a paradox; an organization striving to forge a trail that is grounded in regeneration and learning through a landscape that expects perfection.  Among the regenerative constructs helping us find our way through this paradox are Developmental and Interdependence design principles. The Developmental principle tells us that the health of the system is dependent on the health of its members. In order for the whole system to thrive, we must create conditions for growth and well-being, which necessitates allowing space for bad days, falling short, owning our mistakes and learning to do better. 

So what does better look like? The Interdependence principle recognizes the complexity of our deep interconnection with our colleagues, partners, communities and stakeholders. To shed the standard of perfectionism we  cannot hold this position alone. We need partners who know who we are and the journey we are on;  who trust how we operate and the excellence we strive for, and also hold the capacity to extend grace when they join us. As a field, our work lies in regenerating communities. We cannot do this without regenerative relationships with ourselves and with our partners.  If our partners resist that, then we are not the right partner for them and we know we cannot evolve together.

So what are we to do? We listen. We try to improve, and we even fail at improving in the midst of a pandemic because we are exhausted. We admit when things have been hard and when mistakes have been made and we ask others to hold themselves to the same expectation of admitting errors. We show up as our authentic selves –  with ugly tears and all. We invite others to join us in resisting perfectionist ideals and to imagine what we can stand to learn by embracing imperfect partnerships. 

We see one another as humans, and we grow.


Sarah Lampe & the Trailhead team 

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With these thoughts in mind, we see conversation as both a starting point and a next step as we continue to discuss how to disrupt the ways we experience perfectionism in our work. We invite you to share your thoughts with us on this topic through the button below.

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