Square Pegs, Round Holes, And Safisficing

We used to have this kids’ toy with a round hole, a square hole, a triangle hole, and one respectively fitted peg for each. You’d place a peg through the correct hole and they’d pleasantly fall into a drawer where they could be retrieved. For a kid of a certain age, this was pure entertainment.

Now, we all know the expression “you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole,” and the reason I bring this up is because with this toy you actually could. Seriously. With the right amount of effort, a determined child could push the square peg through the round hole. While no triangles or circles shared this ability, the expression was forever tainted in my mind.

Most problems have both “optimal” and “good enough” solutions. Round peg/round hole is clearly optimal, but with this toy square, peg/round hole still worked well enough. Notably, triangle peg/round hole failed, so don’t mistake this as an excuse for shoddy workmanship or free-for-alls. When people are trying to reach some objective, they may pick a mismatched solution that still accomplishes a basic objective. The technical name for this choice is satisficing.

1978 Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon combined satisfy and suffice into satisficing as a way to explain that people just aren’t totally rational. In the post-War era, most models of human behavior suggested that you could reliably depend on people to make optimal decisions. It doesn’t take a lot of science to figure out that’s not exactly the case in the real world. People do crazy stuff all of the time, and sometimes there’s good yet faulty logic behind it. Simon’s satisficing put a label on the choice type.

When we’re giving advice to our clients, we’re usually approaching their problems with some optimized solution. Between our education and our software, we’re constantly looking for the best way to do something. It should be no surprise that sometimes clients come back with special requests or questions like, “couldn’t I just do this (insert some alternative)?”

It’s our job to recognize that the best solution is the one that meets the objective, not the one that is the most mathematically rational or elegant. Satisficing may take some humility, but once we focus on how to uncover it, we tend to find that people are much more invested in a plan that they feel addresses some personally added detail. While we’ll always want to know how to solve the problem with a round peg and a round hole, don’t lose sight of the fact that sometimes a square peg and a round hole satisfices just as well.

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