Optimistic about Optimisation

Two Medium posts this week (written by Thomas Oppong and David Weinberger) have returned me to think about optimisation as an organisational opportunity that goes beyond the rhetoric of ‘world best‘ and ‘world leading‘ aspirations.

Pursuit of progress

Thomas Oppong in his discussion of ‘good enough’ and the pursuit of progress quoted Seth Godin:

You’re not in the perfect business. Stop pretending that’s what the world wants from you.Truly perfect is becoming friendly with your imperfections on the way to doing something remarkable.

Thomas concludes his post with the observation “Pursuing progress allows you to celebrate each step that feels like an accomplishment”.

Machine Learning

David Weinberger‘s Medium post considered maximising the benefits of machine learning without sacrificing its intelligence. I was particularly interested in this suggestion:

Accept that we’re not always going to be able to understand our machine’s “thinking.” Instead, use our existing policy-making processes — regulators, legislators, judicial systems, irate citizens, squabbling politicians — to decide what we want these systems optimized for. Measure the results. Fix the systems when they don’t hit their marks. Celebrate and improve them when they do.

In his discussion of optimisation, David made three proposals:

1. Artificial Intelligence systems ought to be required to declare what they are optimized for.
2. The optimizations of systems that significantly affect the public ought to be decided not by the companies creating those systems but by bodies representing the public’s interests.
3. Optimizations always also need to support critical societal values, such as fairness.

David concludes:

The concept of optimization has built into it an understanding that perfection is not possible. Optimization is a “best effort.”


I have been thinking about how sport systems might flourish without the burden of winning edges or outcome measures in a highly competitive global sport network.

I do have an intrinsic connection with ‘good enough’ and ‘best effort’ approaches. They are invitational and permit us to fail as a learning opportunity.

My hope is that the acceptance of optimisation processes that offer better ways of performing in less effortful ways encourages and supports playfulness and joy. This I take to be a profoundly ethical undertaking that requires us to adhere to transparent fairness.

This kind of approach offers not an edge but a wide open space for the flourishing of our imagination and optimism.

Photo Credit

Climb (Efren, CC BY-SA 2.0)

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