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
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- When Stress Strikes
- Most of what we know about person-to-person communication applies when levels of stress are low. But
when stress is high, as it is in emergencies, we're more likely to make mistakes. Knowing those mistakes
in advance can be helpful in avoiding them.
- Discussion Distractions: II
- Meetings are less productive than they might be, if we could learn to recognize and prevent the most
common distractions. Here is Part II of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
- Office Automation
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lives, but few of us use them. Why not? What can we do about that?
- Avoid Having to Reframe Failure
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But how can we get something good out of it?
- How We Waste Time: II
- We're all pretty good at wasting time. We're also fairly certain we know when we're doing it. But we're
much better at it than we know. Here's Part II of a little catalog of time wasters, emphasizing those
that are outside — or mostly outside — our awareness.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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- 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.