Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Engineering and Voltaire

Francois-Marie Arovet Voltaire was a French writer and philosopher. His writings covered religious and political systems as well as scientific research and French culture. His often quoted “The perfect is the enemy of the good” commentary impacts many aspects of engineering and project management. In some respects it symbolizes many of the conflicts and paradoxes that all professionals face and that many individuals face in everyday life.

Engineering is fundamentally the delicate balancing of constraints – time, money, labor, materials, performance, etc. It is the perfectionism of highly educated and skilled individuals counterbalanced in a world of imperfect information, imperfect budgets, imperfect time frames, and imperfect practices and philosophies. It is the professional who constantly monitors his or her own work and tries to improve it, that is, to make it better, even if it is good or good enough. It is the will of the individual versus the goals, attitudes, and motives of a larger team, group, or organization.

The conflict really starts in the first grade as a little ditty – “Good, better, best, never let it rest, till your good is better, and your better's best.” It continues with high school history with Clausewitz’s statement that “The greatest enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan.” Or Patton in 1944, “The best is the enemy of the good.” It is followed by the music teacher or football coach that loudly proclaims “Good enough promotes meritocracy by reducing desire for the best” as your day comes to an end. Standards are announced and set. Yes they are set – but never defined. A sliding scale of subjective interpretations becomes the norm. No definition, no meaning, no reflective comparisons – just a ranked order – terrible, poor, mediocre, fair, good, great, superb, perfect. What is the difference between good and great? How does one reconcile a lifetime of mixed messages and angst over a poorly defined sliding scale of performance expectations?

The guiding light in life is constraint acceptance and management – not just for the professional portions of a life. The reason Tiger Woods made the jumps from fair to good to great to superb was the elimination of time constraints. Golf had no other competition. Intense practice and preparation without the conflict of time has the potential to produce perfection. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success (2008) makes the same point regarding the Beatles. Before they performed in the United States in 1964, the group had played live over 1,200 times during a year and a half period. Clearly time was not a constraining factor.

Time is a central constraint for all professionals. The accountant during tax season. The surgeon six hours into a difficult procedure. The attorney with a death row client. The engineer trying to get a bridge back operational. The fundamental canon for all is “Do No Harm.” It is not “Do No Harm, and-by-the-way-make-it-perfect-as-if-time-did-not-matter-and-I-actually-had-Divine-guidance-on-what-perfect-actually-is.” Voltaire was correct – we will always have internal conflicts and struggles with good versus perfect. Engineering is a process that never becomes absolutely perfect. It is the nature of being a professional and time will not make it any better.

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