Best or Least Worse 1

In life we often seek to solve problems and do the best we can. Often we, others and the media couch a discussion as a need to do our best, solving problems and achieving success. We think of solutions as panaceas for the problems that confront us. But is this approach realistic or make any sense at all?

Some simple problems are amenable to searching for the best solution. One such is a product purchasing decision. If you list and prioritise your requirements, then compare the features of the alternative products, one that most closely approaches your requirements will emerge. There will be a clear winner, or at least a credible short-list of equally satisfactory choices.

However, more complex problems are not amenable to such tactics.

The decision to intervene in conflicts such as Syria is much more complicated for western powers. Whatever they do has significant downsides, and this is further complicated by much uncertainty about the likely outcomes of different initiatives. The reactions of other parties to proposed actions are difficult to gauge before the event. How to respond to a new pandemic, such as CoVid-19  when little information is clear is another complex case.

Whilst these are big international problems, in our own lives many problems are intractable and thus lead to funk and no actions being taken. The position can then go from bad to worse.

Problems with relationships often fall into this complex problem category.

We look for a best solution to a problem and then, because of the complexity, we fail and do nothing. Perhaps there is another way.

If, instead, we look for the least worse course of action, then we may make some progress. In these complicated situations the default action is to do nothing. Comparing potential other actions’ expected outcomes with the expected do-nothing, default, outcomes we can select an option that improves on the do-nothing approach.

We are not seeking to solve the entire problem. In this approach we have much more limited goals, to take actions that help with the problem and are better than doing nothing.

In complex decision making, the “best” solution approach is often impossible. People who advocate them can be confused or have a hidden agenda for their own benefit.

We must always be realistic about what we can achieve in these complex problems.


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