Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 43;   October 23, 2002: Holey Grails

Holey Grails

by

How much of the time and energy you spend in meetings goes to finding the best way? or a better way? It's of questionable value unless you first agree on what you mean by "better" or "best."

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.

A grailHe 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
often leads
to trouble
When 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Manipulated Commitments  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe 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

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