If you want better results from your people, don't optimize
July 18, 2014
I was running a workshop for a particular financial company and I heard the word “optimize” being bandied around as a success factor. Upon digging deeper, I found out that this was a favourite term of the CEO and as such, all the staff used it. Yet when I asked them what “optimize” meant and how they could measure that, no one could give me an answer. The fact of the matter is, “optimize” is not measurable. We don’t even know what it means in our business!
If it’s so bad, how did it come to be used by senior executives?
If you are a GE fan, you will know how Jack Welch made Six Sigma the core quality program for the whole company. Although Six Sigma originated from Motorola (look where they are now), it was made popular by GE. It works in those environments because mechanical processes drive their businesses. We need to ensure that the system is within limits so that we don’t get poor products. As such, there is always an optimum setting for each machine which, in and of themselves might not be the best operating condition; but which stabilizes the whole system. Hence, “optimum” means a machine setting that will produce the best results within the system. Unfortunately, people have become so enthusiastic about “optimizing” that they have taken it out of the context of machines and applied it to non-mechanical situations; obviously to hilarious consequences. After all, I have not found one button on me that can dial my productivity up or down!
So what should we say?
Senior executives should be careful to use the right words to motivate their staff. “Optimize” is jargon that should be relegated along with “right-size”, “empower”, “impactful” or “synergize”. I don't disparage their use as a means to an end, but on the end in themselves. Why? Because there is no way you can measure any of them. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. So, instead of saying optimize, say something like, “Achieve 10% more (calls, revenue or customers) with the same resources.” Don’t you think that is so much clearer and more succinct?
Clarify not mystify
Ultimately, you need your success factors to clarify and not mystify your people. Since they are supposed to go out there and get it done for you, it is quite ridiculous that they would not be able to articulate what exactly they are going to achieve. After all, if they don’t even know what they are working towards, do you think they can deliver it? So use words that clarify and not mystify.
And eradicate “optimize” to get results from your people – unless they’re working with machines.