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“Good enough is best”

2 September 2009

Derek Thomson

Finally the mainstream (albeit tech) commentators are waking up to the reality of the “good enough is best” problem and the barriers it creates when trying to diffuse something new into everyday practice.

I first encountered the attitude about eight years ago when working with Architects and Engineers in Amec.  I could show them a new way of resolving a problem that they all agreed existed and had detrimental consequences.  They all took a careful look at what was proposed and the evidence of its benefits from trial applications.  Nearly all accepted that the proposal was a genuine improvement; that their work would be improved from its adoption.  Yet still I encountered the “good enough is best” attitude and existing practice remained unaltered.

So, what is it?  It arises when a practitioner builds their individual faith in a process or technique that they used time and time again and have found to be “fit for purpose.”  Through their experience of using this practice, practitioners may well have become aware that it has problems and appreciate that there must be a better way of doing it.  So, even though practitioners accept that their practices aren’t the best ones possible, they stick with “what they know.”  Inertia is immense.

Basically, practitioners are reluctant to throw away their investment in what they know.  Moreover, in the industry climate of litigation and dispute, they’re not willing to put their head above the parapet to – as they conceive things – risk their reputation and their professional indemmnity insurance.  Of course, these risks aren’t real, because the innovation in the new practice has already been done by those who created it and proved that it works.

What dissappoints me a little about the recent mainstream recognition of this issue is that they’re not identifying the source of its characterisation.  This has been known about for ninety years, viz:

That the increases in production under scientific management have not been secured at the expense of quality would seem proved, if proof were needed, by the permanence both of those increases and of the firms which have secured them, and will be questioned by no one acquainted with the facts. As a minimum, the maintenance, at least of the engineer’s “good-enough-is-best” quality, must be the first concern of those who expect fully and permanently to benefit by modern methods of management. It has remained largely for the time study man and the instructor, supported by proper quality bonus and thoro inspection, however, to prove that as between speed and quality there is not only no intrinsic irreconcilability, but indeed that with intelligent handling an improvement in quality usually accompanies increase in speed. Just why this is so may be left largely to the psychologists -we are here dealing simply with the abundantly proved fact.

Farquhar, H.H. (1919). “Positive Contributions of Scientific Management” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 33(3), pp. 466-503

I have only ever been able to overcome the attitude by engaging futures users in the development of the new technique; an approach that – ironically – does expose them to risk from its initial uses.  I haven’t been able to crack the good enough is best mentality.  I don’t think anyone has.  Although those looking at the social diffusion of innovations would argue otherwise, I personally believe such innovations are really adopted when there is a particular resonance between the new idea and a need for it.  In these situations, practitioners would have found their existing approaches unworkable in changed circumstances: a markedly different situation than having something that works “just fine” but could be better.  Even though each practitioner accepts that it’s not the best, it’s the best for them.

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