Avoid the temptation to improve

‘I can resist anything except temptation.’

Oscar Wilde’s wry comment is true of all of us who believe we can make just one more small improvement.

We add one new flavour (and ruin the dish), one more option to a software system (and make it incomprehensibly complex), or one more dab of paint (and ruin the picture). The cliché ‘less is more’ is very often true.

The expert knows how to make things better, but the genius knows when to stop.

In my field, the design and development of business software systems, the risk of ‘improvement’ is at least twofold. Not only is there the danger that no one will understand all the system’s possibilities, but there’s also the risk that with ever more numerous configurable permutations, testing will become ever more difficult and expensive,. Bugs then enjoy a field day.

The dangers of improvement lie in all fields, including that of ecclesiastical architecture. Salisbury Cathedral, in the West of England, is a perfect example of can’t-leave-it-alone meddling. The main body of the cathedral was finished in around 1280, but someone had the idea of improving it with a spire. It nearly brought the whole thing down. You can see, seven centuries later, how the main pillars that support the tower and spire at the crossing of the nave and transepts, are bent by the extra weight. Indeed, if Sir Christopher Wren had not devised a way to strengthen the structure in the late 18th century, it might not be there today.

In my view the spire was a step too far. It’s a case of Gothic purity and dignity ruined by ambition and excess. Were it not for the fact that it’s the tallest spire in the land, I think that my Campaign for the Removal Altogether of Salisbury’s Spire (CRASS) would gain the support of all reasonable people.





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