Perfecting A Tolerance For Imperfection

I am a believer in the theorem that says every day is Father’s Day.  Children and grandchildren provide you with a wide spectrum of behaviour and beliefs.  They challenge us to understand them. They are always learning and you can grow quite a lot by listening.  Sometimes they see the world in better ways than you.  Sometimes you must let them find their own way.  This piece on developing leaders is useful.

Dealing with imperfection is an art.  Here is a little background to the problem.

On 13 December 2003, American special forces troops captured Saddam Hussein.  How different would the United States be today had President Bush declared the mission in Iraq accomplished and brought home the troops?

Sometimes declaring victory and moving on is a wise tactic.  There is a reason that works and people often fail to notice.  Diminishing marginal returns.

In economics it is the decrease in incremental output as some unit of input is increased, while other factors remain the same.  For example.  If you put five more bulbs in your flower bed, you will tend to get five more blooms.  Adding another five might get five more, too.  But somewhere out there putting in five more will get fewer than five.  Eventually none, and possibly even some negative yield.

Planning and execution is like that too.  If it costs one unit of resource to solve 80% of a problem, it will cost at least another unit to solve 80% of the 20% that remains.  Another to solve 80% of the 4% then left.  And so on.  Eventually you will find that it costs as much to solve 80% of the last .0064% as it cost to solve the first 80% of the entire problem.

Perfection is an impossible goal and diminishing marginal returns is the scorekeeper.

There should be two parts to every problem and yet we look at only one.

  1. What is the answer for the problem?
  2. How will we decide when it is fixed enough?

We waste resources when we try to perfect the unperfectible.  A good solution immediately, is better than a very costly near perfect solution far in the future.  Projects become infinitely long and infinitely costly when people are allowed to look for tiny blemishes and ambiguities.

I am not a proponent of “good enough” unless it has been decided on the basis of a cost/benefit analysis.  Nonetheless, be very careful of perfecting things, especially plans.  The resources allocated to a nearly perfect solution might be more effective if allocated elsewhere.  Be willing to tolerate imperfection.  Perhaps that is the personal characteristic you need to perfect.

Emerson has said, “Trivial inconsistencies are the hobgoblins of little minds.”

It is about the meaning of the resource and the problem.  Feel free to write “Emerson” in the margins of any request for funding that solves some tiny share of a big problem.  Especially true if the request is in your own handwriting.


Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

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