The Optimisation Paradox

Companies who start to optimise their processes to become more efficient typically become less creative and vulnerable. The urge to do something to fix internal processes and ways of working lead us inexorably closer to the problem of creative destruction. What happens, it seems, is that whenever there is a bias towards action, of any sort, you automatically end up leaning towards actions which are easiest. This also means you end up doing things which have the clearest returns on investment.

But when you do that, you automatically are only doing things whose future outcomes are easiest to analyse. And it’s a fact that in any complex system, the outcomes are known for only the most trial of problems. That’s why we’re forced to live in a world where an attempt at optimisation usually means we’re going farther and farther away from true innovation.

To solve any puzzle, there are two ways. One is the efficient way — you call around to see if other people have done something similar, or you search the internet for examples, or the library for books on the topic. This is the smart way, the sensible way, the efficient way. When you want to design airplanes or build a computer, or find your way in a new city, this is the way you take.

But there’s another way to attempt to solve anything — the creative way. What’s mistaken about this is the assumption that it comes as a flash of insight, or requires serendipitous connections to be made. But it’s also the way of the iconoclast, and the ability to reason from first principles. It can lead you through the blind alleys and cul-de-sacs that exist in plenty in our world, but it’ll also lead to some truly incredible vistas that you would never have come across were it not for the attempt.

One is a reductive attempt, while one is constructive. One is a surer way of understanding the problem, and one is a probabilistic way of cracking a completely new solution. That’s why it is so surprising that no organisation has fully mastered the idea that they can harness chaos just as well as harnessing order, just by altering their perception of a slightly different timeframe.

We used to rely on the natural world to give us enough time for reflection and introspection, but now with the potential for instantaneous information retrieval and constant calls on our attention we have difficulty focusing on anything at all. It’s an optimisation fetish run amok.

The world revolves around the concept of optimization. The only justification for this seems to be an inherent, a normative understanding that waste of any sort is bad, and sub-optimal is somehow the highest of sins. The science of economics, like so many others, has made this a fundamental concept within its intellectual framework. Yet like most normative ideas, there seems to be no justification for its existence. The removal, or relaxation, of this constraint would enable humanity to progress at a pace that’s slower, but more cohesive, and which ultimately reduces the pain on the weakest in the society.


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