Why You Should Be Optimizing

If you work in technology or web development, you’ve likely heard the term “optimization” thrown around quite a bit. It’s the process of incrementally improving a product or service through small iterations. As anyone who manages an online business knows, launching a great site is just the beginning – constant tweaks and upgrades are required to create something truly extraordinary.

But why should we limit the concept of optimization to the world of technology? I would argue that we should spend just as much time on optimizing ourselves and our teams. Although the natural tendency is to stick with what works, true growth comes from constantly challenging ourselves (and our projects) in little ways every day.

Here are some insights to consider when pursuing optimization:

1. Tinker With What Works

When you make an error, you are likely to persevere and keep trying until you get it right. But when you get it right – when you hit a home run – the human tendency is to rejoice and then move on to the next challenge. Despite research that encourages us to build on our strengths, we spend more time fixing what’s broken than optimizing what works. Why? Because any measure of success impairs our ability to imagine something better.

I call this the “horizon of success” effect, because it’s hard to see the potential that lies beyond something that works. While it seems logical to risk failure by trying something completely new, it’s unsettling to tamper with a known success. The old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” cripples us when it comes to optimizing what works. Yet, the very premise of optimization is that we must constantly fix what isn’t broken.

The old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ cripples us when it comes to optimizing what works.

2. Make Incremental Tweaks, Not Drastic Changes

Optimization isn’t about making drastic changes. Introducing too many risk factors into a successful project or system IS dangerous. The key to optimization is making incremental tweaks in a controlled and measurable way.

Google is famous for its relentless “A/B testing,” a form of optimization that involves making minor adjustments to their applications and then testing them, side by side, with their previous versions. Using the world as their testers, Google will run a “version A” (the current version) and “version B” (the experiment) – with minor tweaks – and then compare the results. Version B might have a sign-up button moved one tenth-of-an-inch to the right, compared to version A. If version B garners 3% more clicks, then version B becomes the standard and replaces A. And then the process repeats itself.

By running isolated tests and measuring the outcome, Google is able to improve their products without the risk of damaging a successful business. When you decide to tweak what works, introduce one factor at a time and identify how you will measure the impact before you start to test.

3. Conduct Some “A/Me” Testing

We should optimize not only our projects but also ourselves. Just as you might run A/B tests on your products, services, and marketing efforts, you can also optimize your own workflow. Doing “A/Me” testing involves you comparing the way you always work “Me” to a slightly tweaked approach (the “A” in this case). As you encounter problems like reactionary workflow  and check-in addictions, you’ll want to experiment with optimization in your own life.

Perhaps you question the usefulness of checking your email on your mobile phone as soon as you wake up every morning? Try shifting the time for one week, instead waiting to check it until you begin your commute or arrive at the office. Then, comparing how the week felt under this new discipline, you can decide whether or not to institute this change going forward.

Introduce one factor at a time and identify how you will measure the impact before you start to test.

Whatever your quest for self-improvement, it’s important to approach A/Me testing – and all optimization efforts – with three best practices in mind:

  • Seek forms of measurement. The more quantifiable the outcome, the better. Look no further than the burgeoning “Quantified Self” movement to see the benefits of data for self-improvement.
  • Introduce only one change at a time. Remember that, by introducing too many changes at once, you will increase risk and lose the ability to track the impact of a particular change. Sweeping change is not optimization.
  • Don’t assume that just because something works it can’t be better. On the contrary, efforts to optimize should be spent on your strengths. The difference between 95 percent and 100 percent is small tweaks. Find your 95 percent and bring it home, because this is the area where you are most likely to change the world.
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Optimization isn’t about drastic change or self-help, and it isn’t spiritual. It’s all technique. You can’t rest on your laurels. Despite the quality of your ideas and output, the impact you will make largely depends on your ability to constantly optimize – to build on your successes and grow them into something greater.

What Do You Think?

In an effort to optimize these early thoughts on optimization, I invite you to share your thoughts and personal strategies on the topic!

More insights on: Iteration, Skill Development

Scott Belsky

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Scott Belsky is Adobe's Vice President of Community and Co-Founder & Head of Behance, the leading online platform for creatives to showcase and discover creative work. Scott has been called one of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" by Fast Company, and is the author of the bestselling book, Making ideas Happen.
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