Seduced by the Pied Piper of Optimization

Metric myopia and benchmark blindness are symptoms of a mindset and a cultural embrace of the goal of business optimization. Again, it seems almost sacrilegious to suggest that there could be any downside to the pursuit of best practice and highest productivity/efficiency. But this, too, is an assumption that deserves challenge. In their deep study of human and natural ecosystems, Walker (an ecologist) and Salt (a science writer) believe optimization “promotes the simplification of values to a few quantifiable and marketable ones…and demotes the importance of unquantifiable and unmarketed values…” They point to the paradox of efficiency leading to drastic losses in resilience (which they document in both human and natural ecosystems). The authors conclude:

“The paradox is that while optimization is supposedly about efficiency, because it is applied to a narrow range of values and a particular set of interests, the result is major inefficiencies in the way we generate values for societies. Being efficient, in a narrow sense, leads to elimination of redundancies—keeping only those things that are directly and immediately beneficial….[T]his kind of efficiency leads to drastic losses in resilience.”1

Certainly any leader so deeply committed to a performance improvement process must seek a balance or risk quietly and subtly improving the organization right to the brink of crisis. Of course, this is counter intuitive and is bound to evoke cries of ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it.’


1 Walker and Salt, Resilience Thinking, 173-177

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