Don’t Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

When seeking systems change, idealists typically march down a path seeking their desired outcome, rigidly holding true to their ideals.  While ideals are certainly important, those who hold onto them without examining a realistic view of the variety of challenges that may stand in the way of matching those ideals with an achievable outcome, will likely end up accomplishing nothing but disappointment.

Voltaire is credited with the aphorism from his poem La Bégueule,

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good (Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien).

While many have written about how personal perfectionism can be a barrier towards accomplishing personal goals, for those trying to accomplish systems change, avoiding the pitfalls of systemic perfectionism is critical in order to obtain a successful outcome.

On numerous occasions in my career, I have encountered this dilemma.  In fact, those opposing one’s desired outcome may often utilize a strategy of labeling advocates’ idealistic vision as unrealistic in order to kill the possibility of any incrementally positive outcome completely.

A good example is the battle to pass laws at both the state and federal level to prevent the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint on children in schools.  As I have reported previously, I worked with many individuals and organizations for 12 years to finally achieve our goal of having Wisconsin pass such legislation. However, the bill that passed was not a perfect bill from the perspective of those who had been advocating for its passage for so many years, as it contained many gaps such as the failure to cover private school students or the use of seclusion and restraint by police officers in schools, among others.  Indeed, even the bill’s implementation has demonstrated that despite strict reporting requirements contained in the law, there is inadequate reporting of the use of seclusion and restraint in school.

But does this mean that children in Wisconsin’s schools would have been better off without a law on this important topic because the bill we could pass was not perfect?  Of course not.  In fact, the primary argument for passage of a federal bill on this topic is that so many states continue to fail to have any law protecting school children from the dangers of inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint.

Dubbed the Stop Hurting Kids campaign, the effort to pass federal legislation recently held a Congressional briefing to urge passage of the Keeping All Students Safe Act which I wrote about here.  The effort to pass such legislation is now 7 years old, so deeper questions must be asked about why Congress keeps failing to pass this important bill.

As reported in the Stetson Law Review,

Several groups, such as the American Association of School Administrators and the National Conference of State Legislators, argue that since thirty-one states have regulations regarding restraint and seclusion in place and fifteen more states are developing legislation in this area, the issue should be left to the states.

As a result of interest group opposition, the bill continues to stall.

In Wisconsin, 4 critical factors changed the dynamic to allow the legislature to pass a seclusion and restraint bill unanimously after 12 years of failing to bring the bill to a vote:

  1. A well attended state Senate hearing in 2010, which did not result in the bill’s passage, but left those opposing the bill appear as if they actually supported the inappropriate dangerous practice of secluding and restraining school children;
  2. State Superintendent Tony Evers made a personal commitment to bring the various interest groups together after the failure in 2010, to try to craft a bill which all interest groups would support;
  3. Advocates for children agreed to support what became Act 125even though it was not perfect, because it was good enough; and
  4. The willingness of children’s advocates to compromise away from perfection enabled other education interest groups, such as the teachers’ union, school board association, and school administrators’ alliance, to join the effort to pass the bill.

The lesson is clear.  Coalition building amongst one’s allies is generally insufficient to pass meaningful systems change legislation.  Passage requires compromise to build a full cross-political spectrum of allies.  Of necessity, such compromise requires following Voltaire’s dictum:

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

The question for the Keeping All Students Safe Act is who will lead the charge to bring the necessary coalition together to pass a compromise, but nevertheless effective legislation?


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.