The optimisation seduction: keeping data in its place

The limits of optimisation are a lesson we need to keep learning. Data seduces us into thinking of people as machines — but that's a huge management error.

Back in 2011, we encouraged people to think about Data Love — but what happens when love becomes obsession? What happens when you focus on the data above all else? When optimisation ceases to be a process, and becomes an end in its own right?

In my own profession, journalism, we’ve seen this play out again and again. For decades, we only had the vaguest of data – copies sold, adverts placed — and had to mix that with qualitative research to understand how we were doing. And then we were introduced to web analytics, and making the numbers go up became an obsession. What happened? Clickbait, and a dependence on social media algorithms that we didn’t control. Facebook changed its algorithm, and publications died. Ben Smith’s recent book Traffic explores this in detail.

I’ve been writing for NEXT for over a decade now. If I were to characterise one main theme that’s emerged in that writing, and indeed in the numerous conference sessions I’ve enjoyed, it’s an exploration of complexity. With that comes a plea to reject simplistic solutions to complex problems — like following the data above all.

The sweet seduction of optimisation

It’s the theme that found perfect expression in “hug the system” last year — and in a forthcoming speaker’s work. Coco Krumme is the author of Optimal Illusions, a book that sets out to challenge the growing dominance of the idea of optimisation in our lives. And, more specifically, the growing obsession with it in business. As the book description puts it:

This sharp, character-driven narrative traces the history of optimization from its roots in America’s founding principles through the work of oil tycoons, wildlife ecologists, Silicon Valley technologists, lifestyle gurus, sugar beet farmers, and poker players. It turns a keen eye to the technologies and assumptions that have come to comprise not just our material reality, but what we make of it.

Yes, this isn’t a new phenomenon. You can look at the time and motion studies conceived of in the mid-20th century. You can look at the “hustle” culture of the last decade, with startup workers expected to throw everything into the job — except the time they held back for “side hustles”.

The optimised self

We might be guilty of some of this ourselves. A decade ago, we had representatives of the “quantified self” movement on stage. But, in our defence, they included Tim Ferriss whose thinking has since evolved:

“I am not focused on maximizing productivity because that begs the question: to what aim?” he says. “I’m revisiting those questions and my answers to those questions during this time. That does not mean that I wake up every morning sitting on a Lotus flower, meditating for six hours and then producing masterworks as Isaac Newton and Shakespeare and others supposedly did during quarantine. That is decidedly not what is happening in my life day-to-day.”

What optimisation movements and processes tend to assume is that human beings can be treated like machines. Track enough factors, optimise them, and you can make them “better” — for whatever value of better matters to you. But humans aren’t machines in the sense that we understand the term. We are complex biological systems that we don’t — yet — understand perfectly.

Because of this, there are very few of us that are perfectly motivated by “optimisation” — and there are very few optimisations that can work on all the aspects of our existence: social, physical, financial, emotional and digital.

The power of purpose

One major theme that has emerged in business over the past decade has been the centrality of purpose in the acquisition and retention of talented staff. This is a story-led function of business far more than a data-led one. Data can, of course, be used to support the story, but it’s not central to it. A business that can articulate purpose allows a more people-centric mindset. And that allows people to see more easily how work fits in with the messy complexities of the rest of their lives.

This is, in some ways, just a restatement of an adage: do we live to work, or work to live? And the sweet seduction of data is the suggestion that it can make our work, our bodies, and our lives more perfect, more efficient, and more optimised. And, of course, it can.

The real question, and the one Krumme will be talking about, is what are the limits of this?

The optimisation pendulum

Digital has, of course, given us more access to data, for the quantification of success, than we’ve ever had before. Another adage that suggests “half of all marketing spend is wasted, but nobody knows which half” has died on the altar of analytics, summoning performance marketing into the world.

But as Martin has often explored, the leading thinkers in marketing are moving beyond that. They are remembering that, while data matters, there are also soft factors that are much harder to optimise for, including how people feel about the experience they have at each touchpoint with a brand:

All of this brings us back to the schism between brand and performance marketing. The former must avoid shortcuts through complexity, to abstain from what Nick Law calls superficial simplicity. The latter must embrace storytelling and refrain from passing on complexity to consumers. It’s not that the brand, or creativity alone, will solve everything. Neither will media, technology, or data turn out to be the holy grail.

In other words, optimisation is a tool in our toolbox, not an end in its own right. This has always been true, but in periods when data becomes more powerful and more plentiful, it’s easy for us to forget that. Never has this been more true than over the last decade.

One of the ways that we encode learning in society is through the stories we tell, and that’s why Coco Krumme’s Optimal Illusions will matter — and why I’ll be listening to her talk next month with particular interest.

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash