Are You Failing? You Might Be Obsessing Over Details and Using the Wrong Approach

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You know the phrase “good enough for government work,” right? It’s that all-too American idiom used to declare a task’s completion as adequate, though hardly exceptional.

Ironically, according to FCW, the phrase has taken on a meaning in direct opposition to its original use. Declaring something “good enough for government work” came into common usage during World War II and was used to describe materiel – as in M4 Sherman tanks or B-24 Liberator bombers, for example – that needed to be meet exacting standards in order to be suitable for use in the all-important war effort.

Back then, something that was not good enough for government work was not good enough, full stop. Today? Well, we’ve made the point well enough, let’s move on.

Satisficing, Briefly Defined

(Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash)

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “satisfice” means: “to pursue the minimum satisfactory condition or outcome.” Satisficing is most often referred to in a professional context – think work, government, or academia – and is a strategy defined by people accepting a “satisfactory” (or good enough, as it were) solution instead of holding out for an ideal solution.

The ideas underpinning satisficing is that while putting in a maximum amount of time and energy – not to mention financial and material resources in some cases – toward achieving an outcome would indeed reach the best possible outcome, it’s often simply not worth the effort. When an adequate outcome will suffice, it’s often best to accept it and move on.

And, by the way, it’s a real word, and it has been since the 1950s. The term is a portmanteau of the words “satisfy” and “suffice” and, per Investopedia, it was coined by American Nobel Prize-winning scientist Herbert Simon in the year 1956. Simon specialized in economics and political science (his prize was won for his work in the field of the former) and focused much of his research and teaching on the rational approach to solving problems.

And really, what could be more rational than accepting that when “good enough” is, well, good enough, there’s rarely a reason to linger over a problem? Not when there will be a million and two more solutions needed to future questions. If you want a single word that can help you better understand the meaning of satisfice, then consider “pedantry,” which, meaning an excessive concern with minor details, is arguably its polar opposite.

Satisfice Your Way to Efficiency

fork in the road wintertime
(Photo by Oliver Roos on Unsplash)

Some decisions simply carry less weight than others. Let’s look at three examples of when satisficing is the right approach to decision making.

In the first case, consider a “problem” we all face from time to time: what to order for dinner. The next time you find yourself paralyzed with indecision between two entrees that both sound good, just pick one immediately using any method you need – flip a coin, choose the meal with the name that’s alphabetically first, so whatever you need. When you are stuck between ultimately inconsequential choices, get unstuck quickly, knowing either choice will be satisfactory – or, in the more pessimistic view, at least not unsatisfactory.

In our second case, let’s consider how satisficing can be used in a case where you are dealing with unknowns. Take the classic example of a fork in the road: if you come to the proverbial fork and you have no way of knowing which direction to choose – there is no research to be done, no one to consult, and no indication one direction may be the better choice – then you may choose at random. When there is no clear best choice, just making a choice and moving ahead is the best possible move.

Finally, consider a time when satisficing can be part of a much larger, decidedly more important problem. If a team tasked with saving their company three million dollars over the next quarter spends the first week debating which workflow platforms they are going to use to communicate, they are doing the opposite of satisficing. In this, the satisfice approach would be to immediately settle on any functional option, and then get to work on trimming expenses and looking for redundancies. Ultimately how the colleagues communicate is not what matters in this case, it’s that they communicate, and that they get to it quickly.

When a person, group, or organization chooses to satisfice rather than to sweat the details, they allow their resources to remain best allocated and for

When Satisficing May Not Be a Wise Approach

college graduation outdoors
(Photo by Pang Yuhao on Unsplash)

There are plenty of times in life when it is a good idea to sweat those details. Satisficing can be a great strategy for maximizing efficiency and for breaking the logjam of indecision when the choices at hand have outcomes that will likely be of comparable merit, but it can be a poor approach indeed to other choices, both in life for the individual, in the corporate world, and beyond.

First, let’s look at when a person should spend the time and effort to make an ideal choice rather than settle for a good enough choice. The most common yet weighty example might be the choices of school and/or employment. If you find yourself in the difficult but desirable position of having options open to you of which educational institution you will attend, you owe it to your entire future to spend as much time as you can in making the choice. So too does anyone with multiple options for employment need to think long and hard about the choices he or she will make before accepting an offer.

In the professional world, on the flip side of that coin, a situation where decision makers should eschew satisficing as a strategy is in hiring. When a company takes on new talent, that needs to be done with as much care as possible; even when two (or more) prospects present as all but identically qualified, there is almost always some metric that can be used to make the best choice. And when the best person for the job is hired, not the merely good enough person, that employee can then be trusted to satisfice away when doing so is, say it with us, good enough.

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