How Good Becomes the Enemy of Great

“Good is the enemy of great” is an insight that a lot of people have stumbled upon, though I can’t trace the origin of the phrase.  It might be Jim Collins’ Good to Great, but I am not sure. A hint about the dynamics are in that book (again, an insight I’ve heard elsewhere): good people with a bad process will always beat incompetent people working with a good process.

The clue is in the word process. Process is how good becomes the enemy of great. And I mean process in its most general form, not just the rigid bureaucratic stereotype. So a specific portfolio analysis technique for picking stocks to maximize some risk/returns function, or any sort of “methodology” is a process. A 12-step program is a process. A “Maximize Your Creativity” book that deals in colorful balls and right-brained art exercises is still a process. “Be agile and improvise” is also a process. If it can be defined and written down as a prescription, with any kind of promise attached, it is a process.

Here’s why this happens. Processes (and systems) of any sort first emerge when a spectacular and undisciplined success occurs. Like a startup — XYZ Corp. say, getting wildly successful. Or the PQR basketball team racking up a string of victories. Or an actor making it big in Hollywood. First, there’s a success that attracts imitative greed. Then something very predictable happens. A “great” story is retold in ways that only capture the “good” part.

“Great” success breeds inefficiency and waste, and somebody brings order into the chaos by imposing thoughtful systems and processes based on on 20/20 hindsight. These systems and processes, if they are well-designed, codify the knowledge that is chaotically distributed in the successful non-system/growth trajectory. They eliminate certain risks and redundancies, and build in some insurance. So you get ideas and intelligence moving from the heads of creative people and into rules and procedures. If you’ve been following this blog recently, this should remind you of the idea of legibility.

This is where the problem starts. Two additional things happen (this is going to sound slightly similar to Gladwell’s Outliers and like Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s critique of The Millionaire Next Door, but I am making a somewhat different argument):

  1. The people behind the original success discount the amount of luck, special conditions and randomness involved in the success, and tell stories (unconsciously or consciously) designed to minimize factors besides their own contribution. You get “How I Did It” books from the CEO of XYZ Corp., and the coach of the PQR team.
  2. The codified processes undergo a further evolution and become ritualized, and you get process books like “The XYZ Way” or “The PQR Formula for Winning!” But this book, it is important to note, is not a “How to evolve systems and processes like ours” book. It is an “if I could do it again” book. It has to be, otherwise you are reduced to telling people: “to be successful, be me.” So rather than getting the unreconstructed messy story of how chaos turned into order, you get an apparently logical backward extrapolation of the final state. We get the speculative assertion that the end-state process, with its checks and protections could have emerged more efficiently with a given hypothetical storyline. To take a simple example, if you grew a successful blog, and adding an email list in year 3 helped you really get to the next level, you say something like, “if I had to do it again, I’d start growing an email list from Day 1.”

The first kind of manufactured history creates a false sense of predictability, destiny and inevitability. You get the “origin myth” type stories. The second kind of “how to” cookbook offers an improved, more efficient, repeatable formula based on a messy template. Often you’ll find both in the same book. Both types of narratives take this equation:

Great = Good + Luck

And turn it into this one, by dropping “luck.”

Great = Good

In other words, they describe “good” but call it “great.” Because it isn’t fun to admit that the difference is often just luck, and that truly “great” is actually quite rare (I don’t think, for instance, that Einstein was just a lucky Poincare). But this is where the naive can get caught in a bait-and-switch. They think they are buying a formula for “great” and end up executing in best faith and getting trapped in the merely “good.”

If you must, you could say “Openness to Luck” instead of “Luck,” and that was the point of an article I wrote a couple of years ago, The Fine Art of Opportunism. I’ve since gotten a little sadder and more realistic about the world. I still stand by that article, and the model it proposes about how “luck” operates, but I believe that not everybody is lucky enough to be in places where it is possible to manufacture your own luck by being opportunistic.

Censoring Path Depedency and Initial Condition Dependency

Here’s where it gets interesting: the two elements conspire. The self-serving history hides the special conditions (if your success can be explained by a time/place/opportunity, in the sense of Gladwell’s Outliers, there’s less autobiography to write, isn’t there? Those story elements, if they are offered, are offered as “human interest” elements rather than causal elements).  The cookbook on the other hand, creates a conservative formula that ostensibly is about “learning by example.” By promising a less messy (“learn from our mistakes”) version of XYZ’s path, without the “inefficient” twists and turns, and by promising the beautiful and efficient end state that currently exists, a path-dependent history culminating in a desirable steady state gets retold as a path-independent story. Worse, you get the suggestion that it is the end-state that contains the value, rather than the truth: most of the value was banked along the way. The end-state merely milks already-won assets efficiently.

That last point bears repeating: the end-state is not where the value is. The end-state is a hard-won and defensible value-adding position. The value was banked along the way.  The first person who climbs a mountain the hard way gets famous. If he later suggests a road building route and others can now drive to the top, they are going to get far less value. Most of the value the original climber banked was due to the path he took. There are many roads to the top of a mountain, but the view is not always the same.

See what happened here? The manufactured history removes dependency on initial conditions. The “cleaned up” process-evolution prescription removes path dependency. Value-attribution is shifted from process states to final outcome state.

A story that is neither necessary, nor sufficient to explain wild success has become both necessary and sufficient. “If you do it this way, you WILL succeed, and this is the only way you CAN succeed.” Few authors are quite that naively deterministic, but you get almost that promise.

That’s actually the definition of a process: a manufactured, self-serving history justifying a conservative, “cleaned up” necessary-and-sufficient “do-over” evolution path that ends in a promised high-value-adding state that isn’t.

Quite a nice piece of sleight of hand, isn’t it?

What actually happened: luck, special conditions, and talents conspired to create a messy story that was neither necessary nor sufficient, and led to a high-value position, with most of the value already added, and a state that efficiently milks that position for a while.

But why is this an explanation of “Good is the Enemy of Great?”

Fooling Some of the People Some of the Time

Why do even smart people get taken in by a fake necessary-and-sufficient argument?

Here’s why: even though the initial conditions and path-dependency have been hidden, simply through how imitation works, most attempts to repeat the formula will share some (but crucially, not all) of the undocumented enabling conditions. If the manufactured story and cookbook emerge out of a “real and messy” story that played out with a Chinese hero in Taiwan, well, other Chinese wannabe-greats in Taiwan are the most likely mimics. So some of the enabling conditions are repeated even if nobody acknowledges that they matter. That may be enough for many people to get to “good.”

So if you follow the “great” formula faithfully you will accidentally build walls that prevent your own bits of luck and serendipity from getting through. It is only by creating your own bloody mess that you will be responding to your own unique local conditions and environments, and the lucky breaks your unique initial conditions and unique path offer.

Because you are following the straight-and-narrow version of a tortuous original, and with blinkers on, you don’t see your opportunities. Yes, you are enjoying the benefits of starting your email list on Day 1, but so is every other imitator. But what you lose is the things you might have spotted if you’d chosen to be a little messier. A little more focused on your situation as opposed to somebody else’s playbook.

So you get “good” instead of “great” to the extent that undocumented local conditions are shared. Eventually the local conditions get saturated with formula repeaters, and people start to apply the formula too far afield, and you get failure instead of even “good.” The fad is over.

Those who drive to the top of the mountain also get a good view, though they don’t get the great view at the end of the first climb, or the fame. And of course, if too many people are driving to the top of a given mountain, the overcrowding itself ruins the view.

There’s one more twist to the tale. The probability and information theorists among you will want to dismiss this analysis as a complicated way of saying “high risk/high returns gets converted to low risks/low returns, followed by diminishing returns, as information spreads through a system.

But there’s a subtlety. “Great” stories are not merely high risk/high returns. They seem to display certain asymmetries. They are stories that are more open to good luck than bad luck compared to random stories.

The asymmetry is created by the path dependence and initial conditions. You get information out of your environment and that allows you to swing things in favorable ways. But some bad luck is blocked out by a formula. Your unique formula created by rule-breaking within an older formula.

Selective Rule Breaking

I’ve been criticizing formulas and praising “messy.” To a certain extent, I am advocating methodological anarchy.

But this does not mean “be stupid and random.”

The real secret to getting from “good” to “great” is selective rule breaking. And this “secret” isn’t a formula (that would be ironic, wouldn’t it?) because I am offering a completely non-constructive observation. I have no idea what rules you’ll need to break and how or why. I couldn’t write a “how to break rules” book. Here’s my non-formula:

  1. Look for the nearest “good” formula and skeptically deconstruct and reconstruct to recover the hidden initial conditions and path dependencies
  2. Check if you are close enough; if yes that’s the formula you are going to break.
  3. Now selectively break the formula using every bit of special-local-conditions information you have access to.

That’s how you get the rewarding asymmetric openness to luck. It is a very rude and disrespectful process. You read the formula-books and self-serving biographies like a psychoanalyst, teasing out the special conditions and the real story that might not make the hero look so good. You map yourself to those conditions. Then you look at your exclusive information advantage and decide which rules in the formula the information allows you to ignore.

This by the way, seems to be a common characteristic of “great” as opposed to “good” imitators. “Good” imitators either try and achieve modest success, or fail, by applying formulas religiously. But the “greats” find “good” formulas to break. I haven’t completely clarified the connection to imitation theory to my satisfaction though. Perhaps the way to say this is “good is the parent of great.” Both parent and enemy.

There is no guarantee that this non-formula will work, but if you despise “good” and aspire to “great” and can accept “failure,” at least it won’t fail in the “good is the enemy of great” mode of mediocrity. You don’t know whether you can make it rich in the stock market, but you do know that keeping your savings in cash won’t make you rich.

And if there’s no formula worth breaking in your neighborhood, welcome to pioneer country. All bets are off.

This is an abstract and advanced (i.e. “overcomplicated”) version of an idea I am trying to simplify and illustrate with better examples in my book. Sign up for the book release announcement list if you haven’t already, though I think most regulars already have.

Censoring Path Depedency and Initial Condition DependencyWasdasdasd

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. It’s an inversion of the usual formulation, “Great is the enemy of good”—after Voltaire, le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. The idea being that you should settle for good enough or you will never get anything done. It has since been attributed to many military commanders as a maxim of the battlefield.

  2. Some already successful people strive to still be open to micro opportunities, i.e. not dumbing down to the “essentials” but scraping whatever small nuggets might haphazardly show up along the path.

  3. Paste screwed the link.

  4. This sentence struck me as a sad one:

    I’ve since gotten a little sadder and more realistic about the world.

    The world can to a certain extend be described with a paradox of killing our heroes. We pull everyone down, add weights to their feet as the scale their mountains, keeping them down.

    May those who are scaling their mountains become more realistic about the world, but may that realism strenghten them to sharpen the focus of their exuberance!

  5. Tomasz Skutnik says:

    Your idea reminded me of 41-st Law of Power: “Avoid Stepping into a Great Man’s Shoes”. Fits nicely with your rule-braking theme.

  6. My first impression on this was in line with Paul M Rodriguez’ implication – that one or more influential elements in Venkat’s environment had either negligently or naively transposed Voltaire’s iconic phrase.

    And though such may have been the case, it seems unlikely that only a single instance of dyslexic jargon would result in such extensive exposition by the inspirational author of this blog on the common inability and penultimate failure of business management to maintain the level of entrepreneurialism required for business renewal and continuance.

    Indeed the fundamental difference between the entrepreneur and the manager (to which I believe you are eluding) has been (and continues to be) well documented and manifest throughout the history of modern business as management successors invariably fail to orchestrate the production of utility achieved by enterprise founders.

    That being said Venkat, there are times when I cannot determine from the evidence at hand whether your treatise is necessarily a recount (intentional or not) of the principle of inevitable disruption or a literary manifestation of a deeper seated dislike of (disdain for) orderliness .

    Either way, I continue (and intend to continue) to enjoy and gain from (if in no other way than emotionally) reading your carefully constructed discourse on these topics.

  7. Excellent examination of a very simple idea. Anyone who has achieved anything worthwhile will tell you that ALL the value is in the path, not in the goal. Anyone looking for formulas to a goal has already lost sight of the value. “The ultimate truth and only value is the path, any path. Those that only see the goal are blind!”

    • Allan Marcus says:

      Not unlike an old Apple motto: the journey is the reward.

      Which, I bleive is ancient Chinese wisdom.

  8. This piece surprised me. Each of the sections could have been (should have been?) entire essays of its own: like all good essays, it raised more questions than it answered. For example, when does achieving “good enough” stop the incremental effort to get to perfection or real innovation (great); are there biographies, histories, etc., where the author does in fact avoid censoring the role of luck and initial conditions (is that even possible?); finally, do rule breakers deliberately break the rules, or are they in fact improvisational imitators where local conditions prevent a more precise imitation. In any case, its a good teaser for your book.

  9. This sentence struck me as a sad one: I’ve since gotten a little sadder and more realistic about the world. The world can to a certain extend be described with a paradox of killing our heroes. We pull everyone down, add weights to their feet as the scale their mountains, keeping them down. May those who are scaling their mountains become more realistic about the world, but may that realism strenghten them to sharpen the focus of their exuberance!

    • Well, my disillusionment was more the dethronement of certain “heroic ideas” (in this case, to do with the power of opportunism) than people. But yeah, it’s just another kind of hero-killing.

      Venkat