Stepping out of the conference room for a solo break, Ellie closed the door behind her. Another one-hour meeting was gradually turning into an all-day affair, and she was determined not to let it mess up her entire day. She would at least check her voicemail.
She did that, and then stopped by Marketing's coffee machine for a refill. For some reason, Marketing really did have the best coffee. Returning to the conference room, she slid silently through the door and back to her seat. It was like a time warp in there — she had missed nothing. Greg was talking again. Or maybe still talking.
He finished with, "The best way to sort this out is to look at the no-cost options first. Then if none of them look OK, we can talk about Denton's idea."
Even though Greg wants to optimize the group's search for a decision, he might actually be introducing an obstacle. His point is that the procedure he advocates is "best." The obstacle arises because most of the problems groups wrestle with have no "best" solution. And even if there were a best, groups rarely address the basic question: "best with respect to what measure?"
Too often, we assume that "best" is knowable — that there is one best way. The assumption permeates our conversation and our thinking. It leads us to trouble, too, because usually we can't define "best." But the real tragedy is that most often, "best" doesn't even exist. Most problems have multiple solutions, each with strengths and weaknesses. What's best depends on your goals and values, and "better" is just as much a trap as "best."
The assumption that
there's a single best
way to do something
to troubleWhen you notice a group focusing on a discussion of "better" and "best," ask yourself if there is agreement on how to measure goodness. Without such agreement, call a halt — you're wasting time. Instead, try to forge an agreement on the meaning of "better" or "best," or choose a solution some other way.
Here are some key words and phrases that people use when the discussion is focused on "better" or "best."
- Better, best, optimal, optimize, maximal, maximize, more or most effective
- These are the words that often signify absence of a consensus metric. What does "effective" mean, anyway?
- Worse, worst, suboptimal, inferior, minimal, minimize, less or least effective
- These are their negative cousins.
- We can save a lot of time (or money or energy or trouble or…) if we…
- This presumes that saving these resources is a primary goal. Greg was doing this in the scenario above.
If we could remove from meetings any discussion about "better" and "best," unless it's solidly based on a consensus about how to measure "better" and "best," we could all go home a lot earlier every day. Compared with what we now do, maybe that would be better. Or maybe not. Top Next Issue
The article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Enjoy Your Commute
- You probably commute to work. On a good day, you spend anywhere from ten minutes to an hour or two —
each way — commuting. What kind of experience are you having? Taking control of this part of your
life can make a real difference.
- Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza
- When we notice patterns or coincidences, we draw conclusions about things we can't or didn't directly
observe. Sometimes the conclusions are right, and sometimes not. When they're not, organizations, careers,
and people can suffer. To be right more often, we must master critical thinking.
- Email Antics: II
- Nearly everyone complains that email is a time waster. Yet much of the problem results from our own
actions. Here's Part II of a little catalog of things we do that help waste our time.
- Four Popular Ways to Mismanage Layoffs: II
- Staff reduction is needed when expenses overtake revenue. But when layoffs are misused, or used too
late, they can harm the organization more than they help. Here's Part II of an exploration of four common
patterns of mismanagement, and some suggestions for those managers and other employees who recognize
the patterns in their own companies.
- False Summits: II
- When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end.
The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is
in project work.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.