In his book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins decried the lure of mediocrity and “good enough” when he wrote that “Good is the enemy of great.” He explained that the reason that we don’t have great government and great schools is that too often, we believe that “good” is – well – good enough.
His take on the phrase is actually a turn of a phrase generally attributed to French Enlightenment writer, philosopher, and historian Voltaire who wrote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Voltaire was referring to the fact that chasing so-called perfect solutions often yields no solutions at all, and that quibbling over details sometimes leads to stalled efforts to produce initiatives, reforms, and growth.
Sir Robert Watson-Watt, who was the developer of radio direction finding and early warning radar used by Britain to fend off German aircraft during the Battle of Britain seemed to find the balance in necessity and in what he called the “cult of the imperfect.” When it was decided that it was necessary to install radar on aircraft in order to detect incoming German bombers, the British had to reduce the weight and drag of the system on weight-limited aircraft by cutting wattage and eliminating antennas which affected the system’s operating wavelength and accuracy. He explained the acceptance of the less-than-optimal radar capability and a “cult of the imperfect” this way: “Give them the third-best to go on with; the second-best comes too late, [and] the best never comes.”
The cult of the imperfect wasn’t an acquiescence to mediocrity; it was an approach that guarded against permitting the 95% solution to be sacrificed for the sake of a search for the remaining 5% which might not have contributed to the “perfect” outcome that they hoped for anyway. What he knew then and what we still know today is that holding out for the final 5% frequently produces diminishing returns that are neither good, great, nor perfect. History reveals that his 95% radar solution saved Britain and has been subsequently improved, even beyond what would have been considered a “perfect” solution at the time.
How often have we seen studies commissioned, consultants hired, and working groups assembled to collect opinions from every corner with a yearning to create “perfect” solutions only to end up with results and recommendations so heavily burdened by compromise and personal agendas that they became too cumbersome, unworkable, and costly to implement? How many times have we found ourselves unable to accept recommendations for one reason or another in spite of the time and cost invested in gathering that expert input? How many times have we found our initiatives crippled by drawn out processes when we had effective solutions in hand all along?
In our July 15, 2019 article entitled, “Leveraging What We Already Know to Solve a Problem That We Already Understand,” we wrote, “In government, there can be a tendency to smother progress and momentum by unnecessarily commissioning studies and hiring consultants to tell us what decades of research and our own expertise have already told us.”
We noted that, “The good thing about resolving a problem like the one posed by the inadequacies of Florida’s Hazardous Walking Conditions statute is that there is an abundance of relevant expert material available for us to evaluate and consider. In fact, there is an extraordinary amount of information and research already at our fingertips.” Then, we posted links to source material that informs us quite well about the direction that improvements to the hazardous walking conditions statute should take.
That article was an early warning that as our proposal gained public attention and acceptance, it was possible – maybe even likely – that someone would come along and propose studying it even more than we already have in order to create a complete solution. That would be a mistake.
Clearly, it would be unproductive to initiate a consultative process that would ultimately create a broad and costly proposal that is so untenable the legislature could never approve it. The result would keep the statute in its current woefully inadequate state. Meanwhile, some would certainly deflect their responsibility for the safety of students to the legislature and its refusal to act. That’s what is happening in many places now. What the legislature, our state, and our citizens need is a reasonable, effective, and cost-conscious proposal that keeps our students safe, and they need it now.
So, as we acknowledge Jim Collins’ take on good vs. great, embrace Voltaire’s warning about good vs. perfect, and consider Watson-Watt’s “cult of the imperfect,” we recognize that we don’t achieve the good or the great unless we’re bold enough to use what we already know to solve a problem that is already stunningly obvious to us, particularly when the existing conditions are overdue for improvement. We simply need to leverage our recognition of the problem and existing expert knowledge that point to solutions, then decisively exercise the will to seize the initiative and take action before the problem devolves to tragedy.