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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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
- And on December 14: Straw Man Variants
- The straw man fallacy is a famous rhetorical fallacy. Using it distorts debate and can lead groups to reach faulty conclusions. It's ad readily recognized, but it has some variants that are more difficult to spot. When unnoticed, trouble looms. Available here and by RSS on December 14.
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