Something will get optimized

Complex adaptive systems tend to make it difficult to make guesses about precise shifts and movements. Unlike in complicated systems, accurate call shots are rarely a thing. However, if we pay close enough attention, we can spot patterns (events that keep repeating) or forces (tendency to move toward certain kinds of outcomes). In a conversation with my colleagues, we uncovered this possible pattern. It appears that in an organization of technically-minded people (like an engineering team), there’s an almost impossible-to-overcome force toward optimization.

Engineers tend to love to hang out in complicated spaces. Writing code feels like this perfect mix of unconstrained creativity within fairly stable constraints. It feels like flying, because there’s enough unchanging laws of physics to support the flight. Optimization is the zenith of the complicated space (can you make it go faster? in fewer lines of code? using less memory?) and optimization work tends to emerge spontaneously all over the place.

Unfortunately, in complex spaces, it is very hard to tell what needs to be optimized. So the emergence of optimization efforts tends to be guided by the surrounding forces. Folks who are happy in complicated spaces will look for constraints that are stable and optimize around them — sometimes to ill effect.

For example, if I direct my team to embrace innovation and encourage novel thinking, but forget to adjust performance management structure, I might be unpleasantly surprised that the stream of innovations comes as a barrage of tactical tweaks rather than a few bold ideas. It’s helpful to remember that the gravity-like force of optimization is always there and worth reflecting on where it’s propelling your engineering team.

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