optimal solution

TEP #043: The Disappointment of Super Fast Optimal Solutions

If your return from summer vacation is anything like mine, you may find yourself coming back to a huge inbox of unread messages filled with urgency.

Just like last fall, there’s the annual push to find the right answers and get everything done before the end of the year.

“If we only make this one change or get that big grant or convince the new leader, we can really transform things in the next 4 months.”

Hurry up and go, go, go.

As a coach and strategic advisor, I can’t decide whether to call bullshit or just wait for January 1 to roll around.


Because the end-of-the-year mania occurs despite the obvious reality that the complex problems we face unfold slowly over many years.

They can’t be undone in a short amount of time no matter what answers we find or how hard we work.

So, what’s the alternative?

As one a faithful reader of this newsletter recently told me,

“I read The Effective Problemsolver every week because you never tell me what to do, only what to avoid.”

In that way, I like to think of myself as the anti-consultant.

Surely, anyone can take your money and tell you what to do.

But once you appreciate the complexity of the world, you realize that solving complex problems is determined much more by what you don’t do.

Based on that sentiment, this week’s issue is about the 2 things you should most avoid as we begin to approach the end of 2023.

“Speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.” -Mahatma Gandhi

Let’s begin with the everpresent urgency to end the problem right now.

Take homelessness, for example.

Despite heroic efforts over many years, including a series of strategic plans promising to solve the problem by 2000, 2010, and 2020, homelessness is up roughly 11% from 2022.

Things are getting worse year after year, but the changemaker hustle continues nonetheless.

Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition with my recent vacation lounging, but I find the hurried optimism a bit crazy-making.

Expressly, no, I don’t want to hurry up and finish your strategic plan to end homelessness by 2025.

What would be the point?

Wrong timing and wrong goal. 

(If you want to reduce your problem by 10% this year and every year for the next 5, give me a call).

Rather, instead of working harder or setting higher goals by the end of the year, I think about doing things smarter.

As Lao Tzu observed long ago:

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” 

It sounds paradoxical because we associate accomplishment with rushing and hard work.

But, when we take a walk in the woods and see trees towering above us, we can see that time is not our enemy.

A slow but consistent pace is the way almost everything is accomplished in the world.

For complex problem solving, that almost always begins with gaining a deeper understanding of the problem and how it works.

Unfortunately for antsy changemakers, this takes time they aren’t willing to commit.

“There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.” -Thomas Sowell

If you can manage to slow down, however, you might take a step back and say:

“What’s the optimal solution to homelessness (or any other complex social problem)?”

But it’s the wrong question.

The pursuit of optimal solutions often blinds us to the realities of the world we live in. 

It’s like searching for a mythical creature, an elusive unicorn that promises a utopian resolution to every challenge we encounter. 

Just think back the so-called answers championed at height of the pandemic: 

Rent control will solve homelessness.

Defund the Police will end violence.

And DEI training will take care of everything else.

But as the record shows with each of these policies, they sub-optimize other important factors:

Rent control decreases affordability, fuels gentrification, and creates negative externalities on the surrounding neighborhood in the long-run.

Defunding the police increases crime rates, hampers efforts to control officer misconduct, and reduces officer safety.

And diversity training has been shown to have “no positive effects in the average workplace” based on a study of 829 companies over 31 years.

Our toughest societal problems are full of nuances, uncertainties, and competing interests. 

When we become fixated on finding the perfect solution, we risk overlooking the beauty of pragmatism—the art of making good decisions that balance the full range of societal problems and interests.

Let’s face it: there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all answer without externalities. 

What works wonderfully in one community may backfire in another. 

Societal, cultural, and individual differences demand a more nuanced approach. 

And that’s okay.

The real world is messy, and that’s precisely what makes it fascinating. 

Embracing the messiness allows us to explore a wide range of possibilities and encourages creativity and adaptability. 

When we let go of the pursuit of optimal solutions, we open ourselves to a world of exploration and discovery.

Here’s one additional insight from this viewpoint: 

Every decision we make carries consequences. 

In other words, even the seemingly ideal choices come with their own set of trade-offs. 

Perhaps a decision boosts short-term gains but sacrifices long-term sustainability. 

Or a solution improves efficiency but neglects the human element. 

Acknowledging these trade-offs doesn’t signify failure; it demonstrates maturity and wisdom in understanding the complexity of the world.

Instead of striving for the unattainable, let’s celebrate the beauty of imperfection. 

Let’s acknowledge that progress is often incremental, and solutions must evolve alongside the ever-changing circumstances. 

This perspective empowers us to be more humble and compassionate in our problem-solving approach.

Be the turtle and win the race

You can be disappointed that change won’t happen fast.

Or disillusioned because there’s no right answer.

But here’s what I’ve committed to: 

Rather than searching for fast, fixed answers, I try to stay curious about the problem.

I strive to play the long game by engaging in open conversations, encouraging a range of perspectives, and collaborating with others. 

Sure, it can be painstaking.

And sometimes I stumble and fail.

But other times I uncover innovative ideas that surprise even me.

By letting go of the illusion of speed or finding all the answers, I make progress.

Slow and steady.

Trade-off by trade-off.

Day after day.

Every year 10% better than the last.

See you again next week.


Whenever you’re ready, there are two ways I can help you:

I’m a strategic advisor for the toughest societal problems like poverty, crime and homelessness. People come to me when they want to stop spinning their wheels and get transformative, systems-level change.

I’m a coach for emerging and executive leaders in the social and public sectors who want to make progress on their biggest goals and challenges.

Let’s find out how I can help you become transformational.