In many organizations, initiatives stall, product launches are delayed, and a lot of time and resources are wasted because we forget one thing:
In business, there are only sufficiency problems.
The difference between optimizing and finding sufficiency.
So what is optimizing and what is finding sufficiency?
In an optimization problem, you are trying to get to the best outcome as defined by some comparative measure. Optimization problems rarely are “completed” except in cases with a severely limited scope.
In a sufficiency problem, you are trying to get to an outcome that is good enough based on your defined acceptability criteria. Once the acceptability criteria are met, the project is done.
- Seeks the best outcome
- Based on comparative measures
- Has no defined end
- Is almost useless in most business contexts
- Seeks an outcome that is good enough
- Based on acceptability criteria
- Has a defined end
- Is where practically all business problems lie
Core business activities are never optimization problems.
Regardless of what your business is, at some point you will need to ship products, hire an employee, deliver a service, sign a contract, or allow a plane to depart. At the end of the day, continually working on projects doesn’t pay the bills; bringing projects to completion does. Businesses don’t provide much value until projects get to completion.
Yes, the business world is littered with aspirational language and vision statements that sound like the organization exists to solve optimization problems. Boeing wants to “meet the challenges ahead.” Delta Air Lines wants to “become the world’s most trusted airline.” BP seeks to “reimagine energy.” These are fine at the level of a company vision and shifting company culture, but when it comes to accomplishing things that provide value, they don’t help projects get done.
Even continuous improvement is a series of sufficiency problems.
“But what about continuous improvement?” I can hear almost every engineer and six sigma consultant screaming.
Even within continuous improvement initiatives, you need to ship something. You need to change a process or you need to release better tooling. Continuous improvement can and should be something that your organization does, but any initiative needs to provide a series of releases along the way if it is going to deliver value.
Your most motivated people are probably natural optimizers. Use sufficiency criteria to focus them.
Almost all optimizers take immense pride in their work and are always endeavoring to find a better, faster, cheaper, or more efficient way to do something. Many people I very much enjoy working with are natural optimizers. Unfortunately, when sufficiency criteria are not defined, it is the optimizers who are often blamed for delaying projects or focusing on minutiae. Rather than blaming your most capable and motivated people, you should use sufficiency criteria to channel their efforts.
If you are an executive, a project manager, team leader, or are otherwise responsible for initiatives of any size at an organization, it is paramount that you help your team define sufficiency criteria. Yes, this requires the hard work and liability of commitment, and defining sufficiency criteria necessarily requires you to say “no” to some requests, but it is the only way to avoid the trap of continuous optimization.
No matter what you are working on at work, you should put some thought into what your sufficiency criteria are. Even if you are an individual contributor working on a small project, there is value in figuring out where the sufficiency criteria lie.
Getting out of the optimization trap.
In your organization you probably can identify a number of initiatives that have stalled or processes that take way too long because people are treating them as optimization problems rather than sufficiency problems. If you are looking to jumpstart a stalled initiative, it can be worthwhile to look it from the lens of a sufficiency problem.
Questions to ask:
- Have we defined sufficiency criteria for this initaitive?
- Are we spending effort in areas that are already “good enough?”
- What measure do we need to consider this to be done?
- What things can be cut from our project plan that would be in excess of our sufficiency criteria?
- Are the criteria that we have set out reasonable and achievable? In what timeframe?
All business problems are sufficiency problems. Often initiatives stall, projects get delayed, and release dates get pushed because what is “good enough” is not defined. If an initiative in your organization has stalled out or if you are starting a new project, it is well worth the time and effort to ask the questions necessary to define your sufficiency criteria.