Chip Neidigh

Suboptimal Ralph

I heard it first from Ralph Herda. During a change initiative that involved some intense stakeholder resistance, seven re-engineering team members were developing brilliant solutions that no one else liked.

Ralph, who provided oversight for the project, listened to the concerns of the team, thought about it for a bit, stroked his chin, leaned forward in his chair, and declared,

“Owned solutions are better than optimal solutions.”

Say what? Optimal is, well, optimal—the best there is. What can be better than optimal? We’re smart people and this is a great solution: technically perfect, follows the KISS principle, elegant, even intuitive! Anyone who doesn’t like it must just be plain simple. If they don’t get it, we can just explain it again, only louder and slower. Owned solutions? They need to own this one, the good one that we thought of.

In the end, this was the most valuable lesson (and there were many) that we took from that frustrating and exhilarating project. After an initial rejection of his thinking, what he said started to make sense. What if no one got behind our “optimal” solution? What if no one implemented the master strategy? The project would be a colossal failure.

Many “perfect” solutions never go anywhere because nobody wants anything shoved down their throat. It turns out that the “sub-optimal” solutions that team members devise themselves tend to work great, because the team members are committed to the success of the solution. Ownership unleashes passion, talent, and buy-in.

The key is not to figure out the technical challenges—organizations are filled with great thinkers who thrive on challenges. Rather, engaging stakeholders deeply in solving problems will result in workable solutions that actually get implemented—and oftentimes, with gusto. The good news about the change project I mentioned above is that we got back on track by taking Ralph’s advice and broadly engaging those most deeply affected by the proposed changes.

Later, when asked Ralph if he made up the phrase, “owned solutions are better than optimal solutions,” he said that he hadn’t, and that he couldn’t specifically think of where or when he heard it, or from whom. To this day, I haven’t been able to discover its origin. But I owe a debt of gratitude to Ralph, and to whomever passed that gem along to him.

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