Against optimization
29 May 2024 | 11:23 am

One of the most inescapable edicts when leading a team is the order to optimize the system towards the organization’s goals. It comes up across industries and at every conceivable stage of an organization, whether an early-stage startup optimizing for experimentation or a later-stage group optimizing for growth or an aged institution optimizing for preserving revenue. There’s an always-on assumption that there are still yet more efficiencies to be found, if we go looking for them, still yet more ways to hone the team’s focus, to turn laser-eyed onto whatever it is the executive team has deemed most necessary and then light that thing up.

But what happens when those optimization efforts collide with an unpredictable environment?

But you can’t optimize systems in a context that’s changing, especially if it’s changing in unpredictable ways. Removing inefficiencies when circumstances are as anticipated means that there isn’t much slack in the system to respond when the unanticipated happens. Optimization is intrinsically brittle, because it’s about closely matching the output to the conditions, which means it’s vulnerable if those conditions change. What we’ll need from our infrastructural systems, more and more, is for them to be resilient, able to absorb uncertainty and changing circumstances either without failing or by failing gracefully and reversibly, rather than unexpectedly or catastrophically.

Chachra, How Infrastructure Works, page 249

(Emphasis mine.) Chachra is talking about our collective, public infrastructure here—think of the systems that bring water and electricity to our homes—but I will take the message more generally and argue that this conceptualization of optimization applies also to the evergreen calls for managers to optimize their team’s output and to the likewise frequent orders for us to all optimize our own lives. The problem (or at least one of the problems) is that the twin edicts to simultaneously optimize your team and life and to be flexible in light of an uncertain future are in opposition to each other. Optimization presumes a kind of certainty about the circumstances one is optimizing for, but that certainty is, more often than not, illusory. Here’s Chachra, again:

Making systems resilient is fundamentally at odds with optimization, because optimizing a system means taking out any slack. A truly optimized, and thus efficient, system is only possible with near-perfect knowledge about the system, together with the ability to observe and implement a response. For a system to be reliable, on the other hand, there have to be some unused resources to draw on when the unexpected happens, which, well, happens predictably.

Chachra, How Infrastructure Works, page 209

Another way to look at this is that you cannot optimize for resilience. Resilience requires a kind of elasticity, an ability to stretch and reach but then to return, to spring back into a former shape—or perhaps to shapeshift into something new if the circumstances require it. Resilience is stretchy where optimization is brittle; resilience invites change where optimization demands continuity. But whether we’re talking about our public infrastructure or our workplaces, our streets or our lives, it’s change we need to be ready for. Whatever is ahead for us, it’s not more of the same.

How Infrastructure Works
29 May 2024 | 11:22 am

How Infrastructure Works by Deb Chachra (Riverhead, 2023)

Good infrastructure is thankless. You don’t notice the miracle of water pouring through your pipes, or the bridge holding steady under your feet, or the the fact that the lights reliably turn on when you flip a switch. You notice these things only when they fail. And lately, it seems that a lot of them are failing harder and more often. Here, Deb Chachra examines how infrastructure creates freedom, and how the combination of persistent neglect, profit-seeking, and climate change are now in a position to seriously curtail that freedom. As long as infrastructure remains hidden, those forces are difficult to engage with. But in making our infrastructure visible, we also make it possible to negotiate its place in our world—to attend to it, to care for it, and through that care, to care for each other—and to change it. And change we must.

23 May 2024 | 4:33 pm

HIM by Geoff Ryman (Angry Robot, 2023)

“Women, of course, can not be sons of God.” In Nazareth, the virgin Maryam gives birth to a baby girl. Named Avigayil, for her grandmother, she is an unusual child: alert, quiet, attentive, her first words a polite rebuke. At five years old, the child declares that he is a boy and demands to be called Yehushua. This boy, and soon man, can work miracles and speak for God. I can imagine the kinds of readers who would call for the book to be burned, but I found it to be deeply, and movingly, reverent. I am also struck by its shelving as science fiction, and what kinds of questions that raises: what is the boundary between fiction and religious text? In what ways are all religious texts a kind of fiction, and all fiction a kind of gospel?

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