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  • Nathan Kirchner

We are not 100%, why must our solutions be?

The world is full of “strive for progress, not perfection” type inspiration-quotes; I think that is telling in itself. Our general nature is to consider perfection as an obtainable, perhaps with difficulty, destination in most cases. This in and of itself is problematic but my core friction with this framing is that we are not 100% perfect at most things so why do I perpetually seem faced with my solutions are being evaluated against it? Especially since common knowledge seems to be to the contrary.

It is perhaps reckless of me to say, and it is definitely dramatic, but I blame the industrial revolution - let me explain! First, loosen your grasp on the specifics of it. Second, allow me a healthy dose of poetic license, selective memory & misinterpretation of facts. Now, during the Industrial Revolution there was a significant emphasise on removing wetware (people) in order to improve process, efficiency, consistency, throughput, etc. The tone was set that for solutions to be useful they need to do a better job than the person they removed.


Now we step over into Psychology, which again I’d like to ask for similar allowances as before, but remember while I have a PhD in Engineering on top of a few other technical qualifications / degrees, I only made it through a non-honours bachelors degree in Psychology... so maybe double that allowance from before! Anyway, it is human nature to think we do a good job. Our egos literally depend on it. Regardless of reality, we as individuals for the most part truely believe we master skills & are capable of producing top-quality outputs without errors or hiccups.


Combining the two we get a situation where we expect solutions to remove-improve, and we consider the thing being removed as _potentially_ being very good. The key word here is _potentially_, it seems that even in the case where the job is not being done all that well, or perhaps not even being done at all, people still tend to imagine along the lines of ‘it could be done by someone out there & they would do an excellent job’. This really does seem to be the typical default thinking we’ve inherited from the above mentioned framing.


This leaves us very much in the position that our presented solution is being measured against “Perfect” & any shortcomings are considered to be Error / Failure. Simply reframing our solution as a delta from where we started (Progress!) & readily acknowledging ‘we are not there yet’ has proved to be extremely useful, valuable and settling in my professional practice.


  • Useful - Engineering is the application of science. We use the experimental process of science to find faults, room for improvements, issues, opportunities to excel, whatever you want to call them & then we use science to fix, patch, solve, treat whatever you want to call it. When then repeat. When then repeat. We then repeat.

  • Valuable - Engineering is about iterations, continual improvement, constant refinement. At its core Engineering is about making progress, “perfection” is merely the lofty motivational goal that gives us fuel to continue the grind.

  • Settling - A framework that supports this legitimises this pursuit & gives us the justifications both internal & external to proudly continue. It is very useful for our own internal sanity but to also demonstrate contribution more fairly. It gives a widely appreciable objective measure on which we can self-regulate & assess our contributions. Certainty!


<the ubiquitous 'honest question'> “How is a solution that doesn’t work 100% useful?” This question comes a lot. It is based on the false dichotomy that perhaps underpins why some/most of us (me definitely) got into Engineering in the first place; things either work or they don’t, there is no grey area in between.


<the insight> I have faced much pain, anguish and confusion over the years about constantly landing in the grey area and considering it a fundamental failure. BUT - There is a grey and that’s ok. For instance, what if my solution to automate a process only covered 5% of the overall job? That’s not great right? But think about that low bar. My solution reduces 5% of the job? What if we did that job 10,000 times? What if that represented 20,000 workers and $10,000,000? All of a sudden a 5% saving seems worthwhile. So it really depends!


I’ve just ran through a simple reframing & I suspect you see the relief it’s created for me. Sure there are times where this doesn’t make sense, was the wrong thing to do, or was just lazy. There are however other times where it does make sense & I am now in the position to present my solution with the framing of ‘this should help you do a better job more easily’. That is not only typically more favourably received but it redirects the feedback from a focus on its failings to be more constructive - ‘it would help more if it ______’ - music to the ear’s of an Engineer that is looking ideas to make the next iteration better!

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