The good is the enemy of the best

"The good is the enemy of the best." - anonymous quote I ran across this morning.
"The best is the enemy of the good." - Voltaire.

So which is it? It's probably both. In light of the first quote, we can never become so complacent that our way is "good enough." People and organizations must always strive to become better at whom they are and what they do. This is the center of continuous improvement and other process-centric improvement efforts. This idea is also the center of 3M and Google's efforts to set aside time for their employees to work on new (and different) ideas for products to help those organizations jump the boundaries of "we've always done it this way."

On the other hand, we don't want to spend so much time looking for the best that nothing happens. This is where I've heard the Voltaire quote used, particularly when railing against the idea of "best practices." The concern is that people and organizations spend so much time either trying to become the best or trying to find the best way to do something that they never actually get it done. As Hiebeler discussed at KMPro, there really are no true best practices, simply examples of best practices.

6 Comment(s)

jb said:

this reminds Me of a quote that I like - too heavenly minded to be any earthly good

me said:

The second quote is legitimate and makes a very important point, that is illustrated for instance by people who voted for Nader because Kerry wasn't leftist enough for them, increasing the chances of Bush, their least favorite choice. Nader was a poor choice for them because his election was impossible -- the point of the quote, that perfection isn't reachable.

As for the first quote, it would be better expressed as "the adequate is the enemy of the excellent".

Neil Saunders said:

I think that you have been so brainwashed by management-speak that you have utterly missed Voltaire's point, which is simply that true excellence must always be at war with (or unaccepting of) efficient mediocrity.

Marcel Kincaid said:

"I think that you have been so brainwashed by management-speak that you have utterly missed Voltaire's point, which is simply that true excellence must always be at war with (or unaccepting of) efficient mediocrity. "

Neil has posted this claim elsewhere, but it is baseless and stupid. As the March 6, 2006 10:38 PM comment notes, Neils' version corresponds to the anonymous quote, which is not at all what Voltaire meant.

Ned Netterville said:

The quotation, "the good is the enemy of the best," was credited by Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder, Bill Wilson, as having played a crucial role in keeping AA's a strictly voluntary organization in its service to suffering alcoholics. In the late 1930s, when AA was beginning to show signs that its program of sober AAs freely passing on their formula for recovery from alcoholism to others who still suffered was in danger of being compromised by Bill himself. Aware of the success Bill's AA program had been having sobering up chronic alcoholics, a hospital in NYC that treated alcoholism offered Bill a position on their staff at a time when he desperately needed work after years of unemployment. When he excitedly reported the hospital's lucrative offer to his fellow members of the buddying NYC AA group, they threw cold water on the idea of him "commercializing" the AA program, which had saved their lives, and in which freely offering their experience of recovery to others was considered a vital component in their own recovery as well as to the future growth of AA. While truly sympathetic to Bill's financial plight, they argued against Bill accepting the offer. As he tells it, he was persuaded not to accept the position when one of the members pointed out that while the job would be good for Bill, it could have a damaging effect on the AA program he had worked so hard to develop citing that anonymous quote.

Sharon S. Author Profile Page said:

To Ned Netterville: I just came from a meeting where we read the Second Tradition. When we broke up into smaller groups, I asked them if anyone knew what "the good is the enemy of the best" meant. Nobody knew. I said I would get on the Web and see if anybody knew. There was your most eloquent answer to my question. Thank you so much.

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