Optimization and other failures

“By what method?” ... “To what end?”

Optimization and other failures
Photo by Kseniya Lapteva / Unsplash

I joined a call where people spoke about “optimizing” this and that, and it gave me some time to reflect.

Optimization is ultimate jargon. It means less than nothing.

The idea of optimization—especially that of prescriptive optimization, where optimization is committed to or smuggled in instead of a strategy—is an absolute liability unless you can answer two questions:

  • First, Dr. Deming’s pure but irritating question, “By what method?”
  • Second, a generic concern for human flourishing, expressed as, “To what end?”

If you tell me you have 50 top-priority focus areas to optimize, and don’t say how you’ll do it (no method) and why you’ll do it (no purpose), we’re all just wasting time and effort.

“By what method?” is the easy question

Methods exist, many of them super well-tested. All of the bumps and squiggles ironed out. The best methods will replace or upgrade themselves as you apply them over time.

“To what end?” is the hard question

First, you have to actually have an answer. Then, everyone you share the answer with must agree—or at least reach a working, tentative consensus—on the content of that answer in order to fully engage or commit to the project of “optimization.”