Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Perfect is the Enemy of Good

"...le mieux est l'ennemi du bien."

- Voltaire, La Bégueule

In my experience, this is true. But, like so many things in this world, the truth becomes more elusive the harder I search for it. Achieving perfection may be impossible, but I do not believe making a start is meaningless, or that extra effort always results in diminishing returns. Voltaire is often quoted too easily by those who never take a chance, or who are content with mediocrity.
As a computer programmer, I deal with co-workers of every ilk. Some are remarkably precise and thorough. Others are unorganized and inconsistent. Some are solution-driven; prioritizing tasks and ordering work to reach a specific goal via the most-direct route. Others feel no impulse to complete anything. Some become mired in insignificant details; never stepping back to undertand the big picture. Some (those who claim to have a "creative" gift) are constantly moving the target, or rather, moving their own vector to the target, and never manage to find a relevant trajectory. The catalogue of human natures could continue here, but that is not my point. Instead, I would like to offer a few thoughts that each of us can use (myself included) to reflect on our own behaviors.
Do you ever compare real things with unrealistic or idealized alternatives? You probably do. We all do. Think of a time when things went badly and you imagined a different outcome. One seldon pictures better when it is just as easy to conjure up perfect. Philosophers call this a False Dichotomy. As an example, I have made gnocchi a thousand times, but not every batch is tender, light, and delicious. If I am absolutely honest with myself, I have never made gnocchi as good as I imagine it can be. In fact, the best gnocchi I have ever eaten is not as good as that which I can imagine.
Essentially, a False Dichotomy assumes the middle (mediocre gnocchi) can not exist, and that a solution is either absolutely perfect or entirely without worth. To argue that any course of action that is not a perfect solution is hopeless (called a Perfect Solution Fallacy) is a classic example of black and white thinking, in which a person fails to see the complex interplay between multiple parts of a complex problem, and as a result, reduces it to two extremes. Don't worry. I still make lots of pretty good, but never perfect, and seldon really bad, gnocchi.
After thinking about this a while, I started to see examples of False Dichotomy all around me. Politicians present an amendment to a bill which is obviously advantageous but completely implausible. They then attack any opposing idea because it is imperfect. Of course, what would really serve the citizenry is a choice between one realistic possibility and another which is merely better; not utopian.
In 1969 economist Harold Demsetz used the expression Nirvana Fallacy when he claimed that public policy economics implicitly presents choices between an ideal norm and the existing 'imperfect.' Perhaps economists in the U.S. are less-delusional today, but watching the European Central Bank demand absolute measures from struggling countries makes me wonder if they still believe in strudel-in-the-sky solutions to desperate economic problems.
On the other hand...
There are those who assert that the truth must be found as a compromise between two opposite positions; in the gray area - the middle ground. Philosophers call this Argument to Moderation (Latin: argumentum ad temperantiam). Beginning from the belief that any two positions represent extremes of a continuum of opinions, and that such extremes are always wrong, they reason that a solution from somewhere in between is always correct. Of course, any solution from the middle ground can be invalidated quite easily. Simply present another, radically opposed position, and the middle-ground compromise will become an extreme. This does not mean the middle ground position is always bad or wrong; only that the fact it is moderate cannot be used as evidence of its truthfulness.
Anyone who has worked in a committee or other group charged with making a decision understands how easy (and how perilous) Argument to Moderation can be. When I encounter an ill-conceived solution to a problem, I claim it to have been "designed by committee," sometimes because it is hopelessly inadequate to solve any single problem, or more-often, because it offers many very poor solutions to several diverse problems. The U.S. Congress comes to mind.
A second cousin to Argument to Moderation is Consensus. Consensus seeks the consent of all participants in a group to reach an acceptable resolution; one that can be supported by each individual even if not their ideal. With consensus we leave the practice of logic and moved into the world of human emotions; not always the wise way to make an important decision.
So, I don't subscribe to the belief that a solution must be all (perfect) or nothing (worthless), nor that compromise or consensus is always best. I do believe that a right solution always leaves some failure in the balance. This is illustrated in a concept familiar to business-management types as the Pareto Principle (named for Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto). Also known as the 80-20 Rule or the Law of the Vital Few, the Pareto Principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes, and conversely, it takes 80% of total effort to effect 20% of total change. In business it is translated as 80% of sales comes from 20% of clients.
What does any of this have to do with my work as a computer programmer? Well, it is my nature (I was taught) to do things right. Unfortunately, as the discussion above illustrates, what is 'right' is not always possible to pin down. Anyone can make a good logical argument against my definition of 'right' in any particular situation. There are times when I must take several hours (or even days) to re-engineer a previous passable solution to create a new 'right' one. Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Fortunately, I work for bosses who trust me to find the best (if not perfect) solutions while maintaining a balance between time and cost, between attention to details and the big picture, and between extra effort and increasingly inefficiency. If not exact, the 80-20 Rule comes pretty close to explaining my daily output.
In very few ways is my life like that of the Renaissance artist Michelangelo, but I can identify with his character in the movie "The Agony and the Ecstasy." For years the Pope comes to the Sistine Chapel, time and time again, stares up at the massive scaffolding and asks, "Michelangelo... when will you make an end?" From high above the artist shouts back "When I'm finished!"
In conclusion, I rest assured that my personal quest for truth will never be finished, as the last 20% of the search will require %80 of life's effort. It's a good thing my glass of wine is half-full and my plate of gnocchi is pretty good.