The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Voltaire in his Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764) said, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien“, literally translated as The best is the enemy of good.”  (bet you didn’t think I knew French, huh?…)  It has been modified over the years to refer to “the perfect”, but it long ago captured a consistent logical reality that challenges us all, scientists and non-scientists alike. 

It’s a neat little saying (I once heard the late Jack Kemp, former Congressman, Cabinet Secretary, and NFL quarterback, use it in describing passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement…).  But, basically, it’s a nice way of telling yourself, “Get going!  We need an answer now!”

When scientists work on problems, we are always trading off time versus quality.  If you spend more time on the problem, you’ll (possibly) get a better answer.  But to the people who are looking for the answer, they are really interested in hearing what the answer is.  And ASAP!

The same holds (ever more so) in business.  You may have heard about “first to market” – well, this is exactly the same concept.  Customers want solutions, which means that they want a product that is good enough to solve their problem.  You may have a better solution to their problem, but the customer is interested in solving their problem now.  If you don’t solve their problem now, they will look to someone else.  So, the product has to be good enough (a bad product won’t solve anyone’s problem…), but it has to be provided now.

Message:  You have to produce.

We scientists have a habit sometimes of worrying about everything that’s not quite right.  In fact, we’re trained to look at the world, describe ways of explaining it, and then analyze the problems with that explanation in order to figure out new and better ones…

But there’s a limit to how “perfect” we think we can make something.  In fact, nothing is or can ever be perfect.   There’s always room for improvement, so we all need to figure out a way to be satisfied with the “good” while still focusing on what it takes to get to the “better”.

Especially in the business world, it is so important to get to a good answer, something that explains most of what you need, and provide that to others quickly.  Believe me, they will tell you if it’s good enough, or if it needs work.  But don’t be afraid of the feedback…

Now, I’ll admit, sometimes I find myself overanalyzing things and not taking action.  But I’m always pushing myself to “get going”, even if I have the urge to study things just a little more…  This is what got me blogging again…

Being productive is an incredibly important quality in business and in science.  We become valuable to other people by what we produce (how much good stuff), not necessarily the superior quality of very little output. 

In fact, being productive translates to being reliable and dependable to others, since they can always count on you to produce good stuff to meet their needs (usually, relating to timeliness of solving their problems).  Others can have a reputation for providing spectacular results, but you may never know when (or if) you’ll ever get them. 

Strive for perfection, but don’t let that get in the way of providing plenty of “good” to the people who care about what you’re striving for.

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I currently serve as Vice President of Decision Science at CenturyLink. I've previously served as a leader in the Advanced Risk & Compliance Analytics (ARCA) practice at PwC and as Director of Data Science & Analytics Engineering at Areté Associates. I've served the public as Chair of the Thousand Oaks, CA Planning Commission. I have been married to my wife Stephanie since 1993, and we have a wonderful daughter Monroe. Learn more about me »

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