Select the Third-Best Solution

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 05-18-22

Problem-solving is ultimately about developing solutions, or better said, implementing solutions that work. This means that what actually works is an important filter on all the potential solutions that we may become enamored with. I cam across this interesting quote, thanks to The Economist’s daily Espresso Briefing, from the inventor of modern radar…

“Give me the third best technology. The second best won’t be ready in time. The best will never be ready.”

– Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt

Sir Watson-Watt is proposing a useful heuristic for solution selection. Of course, this only works if you truly adopt the practice (as outlined in People Solve Problems) of developing multiple solutions for each problem, and then evaluating those potential solutions before settling on one. 

The heuristic is useful, whether applied to technology or simply process improvements because it helps us prioritize speed and probability of process over perfection. I often refer to myself as a recovering engineer, but this is part of what I mean when I use that phrase. The desire for the perfect solution can lead us to overconfidence in both its ultimate effectiveness and its near-term feasibility. 

When I’m coaching problem-solving, I really love to ask what the next-best solution was that you didn’t select. First, this highlights often the fact that they don’t have one, and so just grabbed the first idea that came to them. Second, it is often the solution that they looked over that may be best. While the “third-best” may not prove itself as a hard and fast rule, the thought process shows promise. The “best” is not the same as “feasible” and “immediate.”