Samu: What is Better Than Perfect?
or how to improve project reporting
Perfect is a term which is most often used to describe other concepts, additional values. It originates from the Latin Perficio, to end, to finish. So, be warned, for this blog to reach a state of perfection will take approximately 6 minutes.
So what is better than perfect: surely things as they are, in their processes of becoming perfect, in the here and now, in all of their diversity, thus fulfilling the paradox that says imperfection is perfect.
When people say perfect, one of the concepts they are often seeking to infer is perfection. Perfection is an idealised concept, found in the likes of mathematics, ethics, and theology.
Aristotle gave three meanings to the concept of perfection:
- something which is complete
- which is so good it can not be bettered
- that has achieved its purpose.
In order to achieve a state of being perfect one has to begin. This is where the trouble starts!
For example if I want to create a perfect lawn, with say aesthetic values guiding my image of perfection, I end up producing grass, lots of, grass, a monoculture, with the most limited biodiversity I could manage, which might be ‘perfect’ for the purpose of playing the game of bowls upon.
Therefore the associated ideas of what constitutes perfect, what tells you when to end, are important to examine, it is the relationships to the mental image and the conferred values that define what is produced, when to end.
If the purpose of the perfect lawn was to encourage biodiversity, such as a biologists idea of perfection, then the lawn might have little grass, but lots of grass hoppers, lots of opportunities for thrushes to feed, and for fungi to fruit.
What might the concept of perfect communications conceive? Would in have the additional values of being the fastest means of delivering information? If so a physicist might consider light to be the most effective form of communication, down fibre optic cables. Would this be a one way form of communication, of broadcasting, like television?
Or would we want a model that delivered information in a more democratic way, that spread information, allowed many to many relationships, if so an engineer might conceive the concept of the internet. This has problems of access and availability though. So as a final model, perhaps we might want a way of communicating the most amount of information possible in the smallest possible space, that was self sustaining, if so a biologist might conceive of DNA.
Now that we have a highly efficient form of communication, DNA, do we want it to be perfect? If so, we loose one of its best assets, its ability to be self replicating, all be it with some ‘imperfections’, some variations now and then. Being perfect would bring about death. Which, if you are considering perfection with a set of values drawn primarily from a theological perspective, might be a satisfactory result.
Plato refrained from using the term ‘perfection’ but the concept of ‘good’ was tantamount to perfection. He believed that striving to obtain the idea of perfection is what makes people perfect. Which is fine, to begin with, but it does not tell us how or when to stop. There are times when stopping a course of action, before it is complete, is indeed perfect. Not all ideas are worth pursuing to their ends. Plato believed, from an aesthetic perspective, that ‘art ought to be apt, suitable without deviations – in short perfect.’ I would hazard a guess then that Plato would find fibre optics, with their capabilities to convey digital information closer to perfection than DNA as a form of communication. So for a perfect Platonic relationship do we choose a person or should we choose a robot?
‘In the years ahead, we must get beyond numbers and the language of mathematics to understand, evaluate and account for such intangibles as learning, intellectual capital, community, beliefs and principles, or the stories we tell, our tribe’s values and prosperity, will be increasingly false.’
So said Dee Hock, founder of the Visa network.
Dee Hock realised that it is the concepts which inform our model, which we aim for, which we seek to create that causes problems. If we think of perfect in mathematical terms, we should surely get a correct answer, we would know when to stop. We would know for instance when we reached 10, that would be the perfect number? We have 10 fingers, 10 is the basis of our decimal system, Plato thought 10 to be perfect, as did many other Greek philosophers; except for the Pythagorians, they thought it was 6. Why 6? Well part of the reasoning was because the human foot constitutes one sixth the height of a man.
If you are using numbers to measure you have to be sure what you are measuring for. If you ascribe values to your results you can get the perfect answer, but not necessarily a useful one, if the results can not be verified.
So, what is better? Better, or rather betterment is about increasing value in a thing. Increasing the values of perfect, of what has already finished is one possibility. We can increase the value of things that have finished, by bringing them to wider attention, by communicating the achievements and the values of what it is that we have done. I would argue that we don’t do this often enough, we settle far too often for the values we originally subscribed to before the project finished. Once it is finished, and achieved perfection, we all too readily move onto the next project. All too rarely do we take the time to communicate our achievements widely, celebrate in the additional benefits that giving honour to these achievements brings.
We can also seek the betterment of perfection, to increase the values associated with what it is we are aiming to do at the finish.
Perfect project reporting
To better perfection in a project we aim to create something with a purpose, we also aim to increase the values of that project, and to ensure that it can complete that purpose. Each project therefore carries additionality, it goes beyond the original purpose of the project, and fulfils other values.
Seeking the betterment of perfection has been a common trait with our species. Artefacts demonstrate aesthetic values are in addition to functionality. A Doric column is more ornate than the prop that is required to hold up a roof. A symphony is an even more ornate embellishment to a hunting call on a horn, a meeting call on a drum. Yet we too rarely seek to extend the idea of betterment. Especially in a time of economic austerity.
Every project, every task we undertake can have a betterment element. It won’t be as efficient as a utilitarian approach. It will cost more, but that depends on what you count.[pullquote] If the only values are economic we will have a utilitarian and poor society[/pullquote]. If we seek the betterment in all that we do we can have a richer society, with more time given, more beauty. It does not have to stop there; additionality can encompass further values, such as tolerance, compassion, and ultimately love.
Do we want to count beans? Or do we want to add water, nutrients, light and attention to the beans to see their true potential? The paradox is, if we insist only on honouring the perfect bean, we will never see the imperfect beanstalk. It is a wise decision to choose to see the beanstalk.
The concept of betterment fits well with the reinterpretations that are happening in the social sciences as a result of neuroscience. The Yale psychologist Paul Bloom reported in Nature from his work on defining wisdom and morality.
Bloom separates mind from brain. Brain’s being an individual biological entity, and minds being the result of relationships with other brains. A single mind is the result of its interactions.
This distinction is important when considering morality. Bloom suggests that moral sentiments are hard wired into our brains resulting from basic reactions of disgust and pleasure. Our retching reaction to putrefied flesh for instance heavily dissuades us from eating it. It may stop us from eating it ourselves, but it is not the determinant of morality, as people willingly sell rotten meat to others.
If a person insists upon holding a morality that has little regard for others what can we do? The best we can do, to better morality, is to deliberately persuade. Our minds, being a social entity are open to persuasion, are subject to change, just as our morality is. If we want a better environment, which is more moral, we have to make compelling, persuasive communications. Our minds have to be open to allow people in that we might initially find morally repugnant. We have to persuade those minds to become social, to interact.
Such interactions of minds are, I posit, preferable to being perfect.