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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- And on March 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IV
- Narcissistic behavior at work is more damaging than rudeness or egotism. It leads to faulty decisions that compromise organizational missions. In this part of the series we examine the effects of constant demands for attention and admiration. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
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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.