Posted by: Bill von Achen | October 8, 2010

The Benefits of Imperfect Solutions

Last week, we conducted our problem-solving and decision-making workshop at Bentley College, the second in our semester-long 2010 Leadership Development workshop series.  The goal of this workshop was to provide participants with a framework for thinking about the problem-solving process, and to practice techniques that could be used in support of that process.

The majority of our workshop time was spent applying this problem-solving approach to some of the real-world challenges brought by the participants themselves.  As a result, everyone left the workshop with a first-hand appreciation for how a simple process can lead to better decisions.  And a few fortunate participants actually managed to solve some important problems as a result. 

Of course, having a process and some tools doesn’t always guarantee a permanent solution to our problems.  In some cases, our solutions are imperfect at best, and leave unaddressed certain key aspects.  In other instances, problems that are seemingly resolved surface again down the road, often in a more virulent form. 

When this happens, our default response is almost always disappointment and frustration.  We blame the people involved, or find fault with the data on which they relied, or trash the problem-solving process altogether.  And we lose faith in our ability to find perfect, enduring solutions.

But what if the secret to effective problem-solving is working from the perspective that, as conditions change, our solutions to problems will always prove to be imperfect at best?  That’s the idea behind a recent Harvard Business Review blog posting by consultant Peter Bregman, who argues that seeing every solution as temporary can actually lead to better problem-solving and decision-making.

Here, in brief, is Bregman’s argument:

–It’s easier to commit to temporary solutions.  We know it’s not perfect and not forever, so what’s the harm in giving it a try?

–It’s faster to implement temporary solutions.  Instead of focusing on making it perfect, let’s just focus on getting it to work.

–It’s easier to get others involved in the implementation.  If the solution is unfinished, others may be more motivated to improve it and make it work.

–It’s less expensive to implement.  No need to invest huge sums until we know whether or not it will work.

–It’s less painful to quit if it stops working.  We’re not as invested in its long-term success, so we’re more objective when it comes time to move on to another approach.   

“These five side effects of an ‘it’s not forever’ mindset drastically increase the chance that you’re going to do something instead of just think, talk, plan and argue about doing something,” Bregman suggests. 

For those who are interested in reading Bregman’s complete blog posting on “Why the Best Solutions Are Always Temporary Ones,” go to our Resources page ( and click on the link under the heading “Problem-Solving.” 

Are there disadvantages and limitations to Bregman’s approach?  What are your thoughts about the benefits of imperfect solutions?  Post your comments and reactions here.  Thanks!

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