When good enough is better: a summary

Calling something “good enough” borders on the pejorative in the US, as in “good enough for government work.” Less so, but still found wanting, is the sense in which a second-best result is good enough only because the optimal is not–yet??–achievable (think: efficiency benchmarks from microeconomics).

Here are the conditions under which good enough is better than said optima:

  • When it comes to complex policy issues, efforts at full or direct control to achieve results may produce effects well short of what would have been the case had one managed by adapting to the inevitable contingencies in trying to get there.
    • We of mid-twentieth century US were told that an annual economic growth rate of about 3% and an unemployment rate of about 4%, while in no way perfect, were good enough compared to the grief entailed in authoritarian measures to achieve substantially better.
    • Another way to say this is that good-enough improvisers using what’s at hand are better than macro-designers who see complete control as the best way to ensure better-than-“just” good enough.
  • Second, managing for good enough in processes that adapt to contingencies can produce results even better than the initial “best-case scenario.”
    • My examples include Anwar Sadat, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela (or on a smaller, lesser known stage, Botswana’s Seretse Khama and Ketumile Masire). Each was a very imperfect person, comrade and leader, but each prevented some fresh hell on earth.
    • They were good enough to take us further than we could have expected, albeit we would want to go further still.
  • There’s also the sense in which a privileged “progress” or “growth” (economic, sustainable. . .) stops short of betterment, a really-existing good enough. They don’t take us far enough:
    • The key problem with insisting on progress or growth is that in doing so we can never be good enough today–better off today–by relying on yesterday’s standards.
    • But of course we can.

To ask, then, “Just how ‘good’ is good enough?” is to pose a systematically misleading question. “You must respond within x minutes of a call. . .” risks goal displacement, where meeting the criteria becomes the end in itself. But good enough isn’t assured once and for all. Indeed that’s the whole point: Good enough can, in its indefiniteness, last longer than progress or growth.

Principal sources: See more detailed blog entries, “Betterment as ‘yes-but’ through ‘yes-and’,” “Good-enoughs,” “Good-enough dreamers,” and “Betterment (continued)”

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