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If it ain't broke, don't fix it

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by Pencilgame

Is this good advice? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


The Case Against

The phrase If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is meant to communicate that a system which is functional should not be modified. The phrase implies the following: a system is merely a tool to achieve an end. The system is not desirable in and of itself, the result is. If that end is being achieved, then a change would at best have no effect and at worst end the otherwise continued achievement.

This does not approach systems holistically.

Modification of a functioning system, when done in good faith, is generally an attempt to increase the efficiency of some aspect of the system by some measure. This implies that a system has properties other than its output which are important to its design. Examples of just a few other important properties might be: speed-of-operation, ease-of-use, stability-of-structure, consistency-of-output, and ease-of-modification.

A system can be functional, but clunky. See Rube Goldberg Machines. Clunky systems may halt output because of their difficulty to use and maintain. It may be difficult to see that they are indeed broken because they are so clunky.

Functionality is not the only virtue of a good system.


The Case For

Suppose a project reaches a “good-enough” point before the deadline. In this case, making the system perfect/maximized may be overdrawing from one's limited work-time resource.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” could be an indirect plea to place resources where they matter most.

It is the classic psychological/strategic dilemma: maximiser vs. satisficer

maximiser - a person who applies resources to make a choice that will give them the maximum benefit

satisficer – a person who attempts to save resources by making a choice that satisfies minimum criteria

This article [[1]] sums it up well:

“Whilst a maximizing approach might seem an optimal approach to decision-making, our energy may be better spent satisficing and appreciating what we have, rather than what we might have had.”

A thought experiment re-enforces this intuition: Person A uses a maximizing-strategy to make a choice. They spend a lot of resources increasing their number of options, understanding their options better, and ultimately pick choice #1. Person B uses a satisficer-strategy, and immediately picks choice #1 without using further resources. Person B ends the process with more resources.

The trick then, must be to find the optimal amount of resources to expend maximizing, not wasted on diminishing returns. Spoken like a true maximizer.