What are you optimizing for?

This is quickly becoming one of my favorite coaching questions. It works in almost any situation, and there’s no wrong answer. Answers could be: speed and efficiency, growth, fun, team building, quality and craftsmanship, etc.

Say an engineer is having a conflict with a PM about whether something should be in scope or not. Chances are they’re optimizing for two different things, and that’s a good place to start. If the engineer is optimizing for growth and the PM is optimizing for speed, then great! That’s progress. Now ask what is pulling each person to optimize for those things. Suddenly they have something to talk about.

Whenever someone is doing something that seems insane, it’s usually because they’re optimizing for something different than you are. And maybe you don’t even know what you’re optimizing for yourself because it’s happening subconsciously. Bringing it to the forefront sometimes makes it obvious that you should be optimizing for something else entirely.

Next time something makes you nervous, ask yourself: what are you optimizing for?

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