Elephant Post: When Does Great Get in the Way of Good?

This week's Elephant Post question is "When does 'great' get in the way of 'good'?"

The idea behind the 'Great v. Good' question is whether the pursuit of perfection causes a paralysis in actually getting something accomplished, or as Scott Preston eloquently puts it - "Don't over think it, stupid!!"

Whenever I think of this question, it reminds me of a quote from the 1993 movie, Six Degrees of Separation, where Donald Southerland's character, Flan Kittredge, dreamt of a painter losing his ability to paint:
I remembered asking my kids' second-grade teacher: 'Why are all your students geniuses?
Look at the first grade - blotches of green and black. The third grade - camouflage.
But your grade, the second grade, Matisses, every one. You've made my child a Matisse.
Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade. What is your secret?'

[The teacher response was] 'I don't have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.'
Sometimes we just need to step back and understand that sometimes we lose our ability to produce great work by spending too much time and effort trying to make it, in our own minds, at least, perfect.

NOTE: Next week's Elephant Post Question is at the bottom of this post. Take a look at it to see if you want to be a contributor to the next Elephant Post!

This week we have perspectives from Alternative Fee Arrangements, Information Technology, Knowledge Management, Information Technology, and from a Managing Attorney of an Intellectual Property firm. So, enjoy... and let us know what you think.

The Law Library Perspective

Perfection = Fossilization

As a result of a combination of our inherent nature and our academic training, we as librarians are used to being critical thinkers.  We get a problem or a question and we analyze it and research it to get to the end product or result.  When applied to research questions, these skills are essential, as they allow us to be as thorough as possible and give our users work product that they can trust.  We complete those “scorch the earth” searches with relative ease and they know that if there was something out there to be found, we have found it. However, these skills as applied to projects or new initiatives are not so helpful and, in fact, can be downright problematic.  Librarians, generally, have developed a culture of studying things to death and moving way too slow.  In order to be perceived as true leaders within our organizations, we need to realize that, sometimes, all we need to be is good, not perfect.

I attended an AALL webinar a few months back where Stephen Abram was the speaker and his talk was called Interpreting the Tea Leaves: Thinking About the Future.  He covered a lot of ground, but one of the things that resonated with me was this very topic.  He said that critical thinking professions (such as librarianship), are somewhat fatalistic and that they can devolve over time to just black and white thinking.

My favorite quote from him was that “…if we’re waiting for perfection, we’re waiting for fossilization.”  We need to move past perfection (God, I never though I would hear myself say that…) and think more about what we can do now to deliver information/content/value to our users.  It might not be perfect, but time is passing regardless and we don’t want to let it pass us by as we try to get things just right.

I will be the first to admit that it is against my nature (and training) to not strive for perfection, but I have to keep reminding myself that in doing this, I might just be missing out on some competitive advantage or strategic partnership that could end up being way more important and useful in the long run.  I think we all need to keep this in mind and, to use a very overused Nike quote, “Just Do It!”

The Alternative Fee Arrangement (AFA) Perspective

Perfection?  What’s that?
Toby Brown

From my AFA porthole – this is an easy topic.  There is no such thing as perfection in setting a price.  In other markets there exists the term “optimal” pricing, but that will be a while coming in the legal market.

This subject came up recently in a meeting with partners.  I saw this coming and was ready for it – even had fun with it.  Lawyers, being the ultimate risk avoiders, crave and cling to perfection.  This holds true especially with setting fees since the impact of setting a fee poorly falls directly on them.  They always want to base the fee/price on a very detailed budget accounting for all contingencies.  I understand their desire for this.  It’s just that this approach is unrealistic.  You can’t account for all contingencies in a legal matter and build them into the price.  Instead you define and isolate as best you can the potential factors that will impact the fee and lay them out as triggers for renegotiation.

Ultimately all prices are guesses.  Even setting the price for a candy bar is a guess, since it’s impossible to know everything that influences a buyer’s decision.  For legal services, you want to make the most educated guess you can when it comes to fees.  But spending copious and possibly unlimited amounts of time trying to build a bullet-proof (a.k.a. perfect) fee is a waste of time.

In the meeting with the partners -  I stated out-loud that all prices are ultimately guesses.  After the cumulative blood pressure in the room peaked, I let them know this was OK and we will get them to the point of making the best educated guess – without going over (so to speak).

I can admit it.  I enjoyed that.

The Knowledge Manager's Perspective

We Are Not Contortionists, Lion Tamers, or High Wire Acts

I just returned from Le Grand Cirque ILTA, a circus-style evening at ILTA's annual conference featuring a contortionist, a hand balancer, and an aerial ribbon performer. For these professionals, perfect balance is everything; anything shy of perfection causes them to fall and their proper execution to fail. The same goes for a variety of circus performers, lion tamers, high wire acts, and the like - it's all or nothing, success or failure.

As an attorney-turned-knowledge-manager, I used to feel like one of these circus performers. My two options were perfection and failure. Nothing in between.

But I've come to realize that in the world of knowledge management, the 'in between' is the sweet spot. Not only because aiming for perfection takes an inordinately long time, but because in this world perfection is like a winged pig; it doesn't exist and never will. The high wire performer can achieve perfect balance and land on the wire without the slightest bobble. Knowledge managers, on the other hand, will always have information that is out of reach and knowledge that is impossible to materialize in a productive way.

While this realization may seem frustrating to some, I hope for others it is a huge relief. It means that we no longer need to strive for perfection, and in fact doing so misses the point. Because we are not here to produce perfection; we are here to improve the business and practice of law which (here's the kicker:) can happen incrementally. Releasing an imperfect system still makes a process better than it was before, even if it can be made even better down the road.

What better news than to find out that imperfect decisions can in fact be perfect. The perfectionists in us can finally get some sleep after all.

The Patent Attorney and Inventor Perspective

"Wait For Great and You May Be Late"
Bruce Burdick, Owner & Managing Attorney
The Burdick Law Firm, Intellectual Patent Attorney from the St. Louis area

Inventors and their patent attorneys face the question on every patent application on every invention.  Do we submit the patent application now, when the invention is still evolving and not yet perfected, or do we wait until the current "good" invention becomes "great."  Most experienced patent attorneys know the answer is generally that good is good enough.  Great can come later.  Great may be lost to the inventor and patent attorney by waiting for good to become great.  You see, in the rest of the world (and soon to be in US as well), the first to invent under the law is the first to disclose the invention in a patent application filed with the appropriate patent office, usually the patent office of the inventor's country of residence.  Waiting for good to become great can result in a third party filing on their good version of your good invention and preempting you.  That will result in you losing both good and great to someone who either only had good or who thought good was good enough.

There are over 7,000,000 US Patents, more than 6,000,000 issued since the famous 1843 statement by the then Commissioner of the US Patent Office that "The day is fast approaching when everything that can be invented, will have been invented" concurrent with his proposing that the Patent Office soon be shut down as new inventions would not be possible. So there will always be improvements and today's good will be tomorrow's bad and today's great will be tomorrow's good, and tomorrow's great is as yet unknown.  So, a big part of the patent attorney's job is to convince the inventor to file on today's good today so the inventor won't lose good or great.  Fortunately, the patent law and patent practice recognize this dilemma and provide for what are called "continuation", "continuation-in-part" and "divisional" patent applications so that if the inventor files on good and then improves it to great and files on great then both may be covered.  Also, if great is not obvious to one or ordinary skill in the relevant art who knows of good, then an original patent application may be filed on "great".

In truth of fact, nearly every invention is an improvement on someone else's "good" or "great" invention, often brought about by new technology, new thinking, or new problems.  So, we patent attorneys know by experience that good is often good enough.  Apart from the patent law and inventors, experience tells us that we can get too complex seeking to get great rather than good.  I have had numerous software upgrades to the latest greatest thing only to find out peripherals no longer work.  The appeal of Linux is that it is simple and good and very, very reliable.  Windows keeps getting better and better, but is always fraught with peril due to hackers and internal glitches.  Open Office is "good" not "great" but it is very reliable and versatile and does nearly everything MS Office does, but in a less sophisticated way. My swimming pool cleaner, a robotic Aqua Jet marvel, is merely "good" in comparison to some of the computerized wonders such as used on Olympic swimming pools, but it is so effective and reliable and trouble free and easy to use that to me "good" is better at 30% of the cost of "great."

We all have similar stories where we look for the complex when the simple will suffice.  I see it with my inventor clients every day.  Good inventors think out of the box and sometimes that involves not taking a more and more complex approach, but stepping outside the norm and thinking "Hey, I know a simpler way to do that."   Thomas Edison was such an inventor. He was not the first to make an electric light bulb nor did he make a great light bulb, but he made the first one that was good enough (had a filament that lasted long enough) to be commercially viable and set up the company that made electric lighting a reality, and which  today is General Electric Co.  Likewise, Bill Gates didn't invent the user interface that became Windows.  Xerox did.  Bill Gates did not have the best version, Apple did.  But, Gates had a "good" operating system (DOS and later Windows) and it was good enough to take over the world despite Apple's OS being superior by all reasonable measurements.  Bottom line, great may be late.  Or, often as regards implementation of good, "You snooze, You lose!"

The Information Technology Perspective

Don’t let the perfection monster eat your lunch
Scott Preston

In a perfect world, the question of great versus good would be a non-issue.  We would have all the goals and objectives of a project perfectly conceived, communicated and shared.  We would have plenty of time to organize our thoughts, play with concepts and formalize our ideas.  We would have an abundance of users willing to work with IT to refine the process and those users would be more than happy to spend their precious time testing, revising and improving the project.  We would have all the necessary resources (both financial and human) and we would have management that understood the value of the project and supported the investment of time and money.

Even in a perfect world where we have most everything stated above, great will still get in the way of good.  It takes a lot of time to conceive, design and implement a good solution.

"The incremental benefit of making a solution great is more often offset by the time it takes to implement it. "

I have seen software development projects go off track because the development team spent so much time trying to develop the perfect plan that the client loses the competitive advantage it had.  The value of speed is offset by the desire for great.

Your best bet is to keep your eye on the ball, deliver a project that meets the needs and deliver it on time.  You will have time in the future to improve the project if there is value in those improvements, but often times good enough is good enough.

What's Next for the Elephant Post?

The purpose of the Elephant Posts is to ask the same question to professionals from different legal fields, and to encourage guest bloggers to come on 3 Geeks and contribute with a short answer. These "short & sweet" answers give the readers an opportunity to fill in the blanks, or continue the conversation in the comment's section.

Next week's Elephant Post Question:

Did the downturn in the economy give you an opportunity to 'Rightsize'?

The idea behind this post is to ask "Why do we continue to tolerate slackers or unproductive processes?" Come on admit it, you have some products, processes, employees, administrators, associates, partners, etc. that are sacred cows and do not carry their weight. Why do we keep them? In these times, we should be stacking the deck not slacking it. Did the downturn in the economy finally give you the ability to jettison the underachieving processes/workers, or are you still carrying them on your firm's balance sheet?

We'd love to get your thoughts on this topic. If you want to contribute to the Rightsize During the Downturn post, send me an email. We know that this specific topic may be a little tough to answer, so if you want to take a shot at it, but remain anonymous, we're okay with that.

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