The Best is the Enemy of the Good: Making Good Technology Choices

[Note: This article from late 1998 is one of my favorite little articles. It covers a topic that I often struggle with. Re-reading it, I was struck at how applicable it is to the new world of Web 2.0 apps.]
The Best is the Enemy of the Good: Making Good Technology Choices
I have recently been rereading Harry Beckwith’s wise book on marketing called Selling the Invisible. I cannot recommend this book too highly. It is a collection of short kernels of wisdom on much more than marketing that will make you stop and think on nearly every page.
I had dog-eared a page that contained a short section called “Fallacy: Perfection is Perfection,” where he says “You can easily get stalled from the shift from strategy to tactics because you are paralyzed by the desire for excellence.” He goes on to say that here is a good way the rate the “Best Plans” in order of desirability:
Very good
Not good
Truly god-awful

This list gets my interest. Why does good rank above best? “Because,” he says, “getting to best usually gets complicated.”
Indeed it does. Beckwith says we start to face issues like can we agree on what is best, how long will it take to agree, and will reaching best in one area require sacrifice in other areas? The most important of these questions is “will all that excellence really benefit the person for whom it is intended?”
The greater the push for the perfect plan or result, the more chance what we will instead find is delay. Beckwith says that a “paralysis” sets in from the “fear that executing the plan will show that the plan was not perfect.” As he says, “too often, the path to perfection leads to procrastination.”
I was reminded of this again because I am in the “buying a new computer” mode, a time when my friends know that it is best to avoid me, at least on that subject. I’ve read every article on laptop computers, checked all the comparison ratings, talked to everyone who will listen to me, and . . . done nothing. I even tried to break the spell by writing an article for Lawyers Weekly USA on how an attorney should choose a laptop computer, but still haven’t been able to follow my own advice in my article – even though my advice really makes a lot of sense to me.
It’s the curse of The Best. Not the best computer, mind you. Instead, the best decision about a computer. I’ve fallen into the perfection trap. My quest has become finding the best performance and features for the lowest price, a goal that, even if achieved, will probably be mooted within a week or two.
In the technology arena, many people are motivated primarily by avoiding the truly god-awful decision. With research, consultation and reasonable efforts in the decision making process, you can get into the “good” choice range pretty easily. According to Beckwith, this is a result that ranks above Best. Ironically, often the only “truly god-awful” choice is standing pat with obsolete technology and doing nothing.
Often, it doesn’t take much more effort to get from “good” to the “very good” category. Think about it, really: either Word or WordPerfect, by any standard, are very good choices, as are Novell or Windows NT on the network side, Netscape Navigator or Microsoft’s Internet Explorer as browsers. You can’t go too wrong. A choice can be made pretty quickly and then efforts focused on making it work for you.
Unfortunately, especially in a committee setting, that’s easier said than done. Inexorably, you start to move toward the Best. The tip-off is when you start to talk only of specific features and move away from discussing benefits to users.
This movement toward the Best moves you away from reality to a fragile construct that finally barely can stand on its own. An example? I did all this research, came to a decision about a laptop computer. I mentioned the brand I was considering to a friend and the friend made a comment about how the on/off switch on his laptop of the same brand really annoyed him. Boom, I tossed away my decision and went back to square one. And I didn’t even try the on/off switch for myself.
You will recognize this phenomenon at your law firm. Months go into making a decision and one day someone reports that a friend’s law firm tried the same approach and it was a disaster. All the work you did gets thrown away and yesterday’s consensus gets tossed into the trash can.
How many reviews do you have to see to convince yourself you are right? Your focus can easily turn to an abstract notion of the perfect choice and you get stuck.
I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about the implications of handheld computers (e.g., the Palm computing devices). What intrigues me is that these devices are moving us to a place where we can choose a device that reflects how we work best instead of being forced to accommodate our working patterns to the technology. You like to write out things – get a computer that has handwriting recognition. Like to dictate first drafts – speech recognition.
Here is a clue to dealing with the curse of the Best. Turn the focus back on to what you need, what will help you and what will make you work better. Move away from an endless comparison of features, especially those features you probably won’t use. Do the same thing on a firm-wide basis and keep those questions at the forefront as you make decisions. As Beckwith says, focus on what will really benefit the person for whom the technology is intended.
This approach should move you comfortably into the zone of the good and very good. You can then move forward and focus on making what you’ve chosen work better for you.
When you start to drift into the nether worlds of the Best and find yourself stuck, turn to the practical, not the ideal, the real-world concerns, not abstract test results, and filling your needs, not the often esoteric concerns of reviewers.
As Beckwith says, “Don’t left perfect ruin good.” Or, as my wife says, “will you just buy a computer?”
An earlier version of this article appeared in the November 1, 1998 issue the Legal Technology Strategies Newsletter.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (]
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