I've often heard "perfect is the enemy of done", and considering pragmatism in the workplace is an excellent application of this. There are many problems which might have a perfect solution, but the perfect solution would be more expensive. "More expensive" might be measured merely in terms of dollars, but it can also be measured in terms of how long it takes to implement, or how much effort will be required to keep it running at optimal efficiency. If the perfect solution doesn't meet the needs of the situation, then you have to come up with a solution that is good enough for now.
For a non-work example, on a recent visit to my mechanic for my car's regular oil change, I mentioned that the sunroof wasn't working properly. The whole sunroof mechanism is automated, from the cloth that covers the sunroof when I don't want the sun beating down on my head to the actual opening and closing of the glass of the sunroof. The cloth that covers the sunroof was catching just as it was about to open fully. After examining it, my mechanic explained (and I confirmed via my own research later) that this is a known problem in my vehicle, and that the mechanism that operates the sunroof will eventually fail. He said that this catching is the earliest sign of it, and that my sunroof will probably stop working (hopefully not while it's open!) in a year or two. He gave me three potential solutions:
- Ignore it. I could manually address the problem (if I tapped on the cloth, it would snap into its correct place), and it wasn't going to hurt anything or impact when the mechanism would fully fail. This would, of course, cost me $0. It would require me to tap on the cloth when it got caught, which is what I was already doing, so there is small cost of my time associated with this choice.
- Lubricate the mechanism. I could do this myself, or he could do it for me, since getting the lubrication to all of the right bits of the mechanism is a bit fiddly. This would address the symptom of the problem. It would also probably give me some more time before the mechanism fully failed. This would cost me either about $10 to do it myself, or $20 for him to do it. This would cost me an hour or so in doing the work myself, or an extra few minutes if I let him do it.
- Replace the mechanism now. This would address the underlying issue, and the mechanisms that are available now don't appear to have the same design flaw. This would be very expensive and time-consuming, and would cost me over $500. This would also result in several hours of labor on his part, so I would have to schedule the work at another time, and I would be without my car for most of the day.
Pragmatically, I chose the second option. It addressed my short-term annoyance with the cloth catching, and it hopefully will increase the time until the mechanism fully fails. The perfect solution would be the third option, but I'm not sure if I will even have the car that long.
I can come up with many times where I've made similar trade-offs in my work: the perfect solution would take too long or cost too much money, so I came up with another solution which didn't address the full need but was worthwhile because it would address some or most of the problem, and I could do it in a reasonable amount of time or because its cost was within our budget. Also, there are times when you can break down a perfect solution into the solution for now which is part of the perfect solution and addresses the immediate need, and you can later work towards implementing the perfect solution when there is more money, time, or other factor that currently limits you from implementing the perfect solution now.
This is important for an employer to know because it tells them a few things. It helps them understand your problem-solving ability. It also helps them understand how you work with constraints. The question also gives them examples of real-world situations where you have identified the portion of the problem that is most important to solve (or the portion of the perfect solution that doesn't work for your situation due to cost, time, or other factors) and addressed it. Being able to talk about this means that you can talk about what you've completed and what trade-offs you made to get it done. There are many people who get caught in delivering the perfect solution, which ultimately results in never being done.