optimal solutions

TEP #009: Optimal solutions kill impact. Here’s a better approach.

Have you ever decided to optimize one part of your life and found that everything else suffers?

You choose a strict diet and realize that you’re no longer eating meals with family and friends? Or adopt a daily exercise regimen that leaves you fatigued and behind on other responsibilities?

That’s the danger of optimizing just one thing without regard for the bigger picture. It ends up sub-optimizing the rest of your life.

Today I’m going to show you how choosing optimal solutions to problems like homelessness leads to similar types of unintended consequences. 

And I’ll show you what to do instead.

Many problems, many goals.

Before we get to more complex problems, let’s take our diet and exercise examples from above. 

Perfectly optimizing either – healthy meals everyday with no cheats, or an hour of HIIT daily – often doesn’t work in the long-run because you have to balance them with many other goals in life. You want to be healthy, but you also want to make money, hang out with friends, and be a good parent.

I think most of us intuitively know that we have to balance goals across a lot of domains. 

Rather than choose the perfect diet or exercise plan, we satisfice (a combo of satisfy and suffice) to find complimentary options.

Such as a diet that’s healthy enough but your kids will still eat. Or a workout that keeps the weight off but leaves time and energy for other pursuits.

But satisficing across multiple goals seems totally foreign to many of today’s changemakers.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

An ancient parable from the Indian subcontinent illuminates the challenge. It’s about three blind men who are asked to describe an elephant by touch, an animal they have never encountered before.

The first man feels the trunk and claims it is like a snake. The second man examines the ear and describes it like a fan. The third man wraps his hands around one of the legs and insists it’s like a tree trunk.

Each man is incredulous of the others’ description and they eventually come to blows while insisting on their version of reality.

While each man was speaking the truth of their own experience, they failed to account for other subjective truths or the complexity of the bigger picture.

Optimizing one thing sub-optimizes everything else

Complex problems like homelessness are today’s proverbial elephants. 

I like to refer to them as  “messes.” This term, which was coined by systems theorist Russell Ackoff in 1974, describes a system of ill-defined and interrelated problems. 

Homelessness, for example, includes the interrelated issues of temporary shelters, affordable housing, substance abuse, domestic violence, and family breakdown (among others). And it’s been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The key point is that the mess has multiple stakeholders who have different perspectives on what the problem even is.

This has played out in many US cities grappling with the increase in homelessness over the last few years.

In some ways, the response has been akin to the parable of the blind men with the elephant. 

Most vocal are “Housing First” advocates, many of whom insist that “homelessness is a housing problem, full stop.” Their optimal goal has been to build enough affordable and permanent supportive housing (without requiring treatment as a precondition) so that no one remains unsheltered.

It’s an expensive proposition. Minnesota’s largest county, like many around the country, recently allocated more than $90 million to homelessness and housing, including building 2,523 affordable housing units. This represents about 40% of the pandemic funding it received from the federal government since March 2020. 

I quibble not about housing costs or lack of affordable housing being a part of the problem. Indeed, I think they are.

But rather, I take issue with the mindset that adopts a total solution – one right answer or approach – to any truly complex problem. 

The housing-as-first-solution conviction has gone so far that some deny there are any other legitimate aspects of the problem. This despite ongoing surveys of actual homeless people citing issues other than housing costs as the primary reasons for their present situation. 

To again use Minnesota as an example, a majority (53%) of homeless adults surveyed in 2018 did not report finances as a reason for leaving their last housing. (Data and chart from Wilder Research, March 2020.)

In many cities, important services like mental health services and addiction treatment have been budgetarily sidelined (even as these needs grow) as development of more affordable housing is prioritized. 

Overall spending on housing for homelessness is reaching record highs, but the problem continues to grow. 

The proverbial elephant defies reductionism.

How to avoid the seduction of one solution

Perhaps it’s the reductionist tendency to simplify things, or maybe just the understandable desire to want one measurable goal. 

But, the goal with complex problems is not to optimize any one part of the problem. That would be like winning the battle but losing the war. Instead you try to optimize the mess as a whole for system-wide improvement.

Here’s 5 ways to do that:

 #1. Acknowledge that your subjective truth is not the totality of truth.

#2. Step back and see the big picture.

#3. Take on another’s perspective.Talk to people experiencing the problem. Try to gain perspective saturation by connecting with all stakeholders.

#4. Find synergistic solutions. Every solution has trade-offs. Your goal is to choose the best trade-offs (“satisficing”) that optimize the mess as a whole rather than individual components.

#5. Spend more time problem structuring. It has been said that the way you frame the problem frames the solution. If you frame a complex problem simply, you’re very likely to get simple solutions that sub-optimize key variables. 

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.