You want your efforts to have an impact. To increase your impact, you engage others in generating that impact with you. While it takes a lot of work, that is your objective, why you do what you do. Your ability to generate that impact, with others, is a function of your inputs and what you do with those inputs. In technical terms, this is your objective function.
What if you actually achieved your objective function, in ways that you did not control, could not influence, or did not understand? To avoid this unintended consequence, let’s understand what an objective function is and how to work with it.
With an objective function, you are trying to optimize the mix of benefits and costs. Either maximizing the net benefit or minimize the net cost. You are trying to optimize a set of things that vary, called variables. UC Berkeley professor of computer science Stuart Russell warns us to be very careful with this kind of approach. While Stuart is talking specifically about artificial intelligence, the advice applies to complex social systems as well. If you give the system a goal, and you do not know what the system is doing, you might very well achieve the goal, but at what cost. You might maximize impact, today, and ruin all relationships along the way, or miss the opportunity to receive a sustaining gift. Since some variables were outside of the set you designed, and you gave clear mandates to achieve the objective, the system did achieve it, oblivious to the other variables, which could have changed how you would have optimized your impact.
- unspecified objective — you do not know what you want to achieve
- misspecified objective — you do not actually want what you state you want
- underspecified objective function — you do not know how to get what you want
What You Want. You can know that you have a passion, and that you want to have an impact. This can lead you to a general goal of something you would like to achieve. Do you want to help others? Make money? Teach kids. Unfortunately, this very open statement of a general goal does not guide you to what you need to do to have an impact that is meaningful to you. And, a general goal like this makes it very hard for others to focus their efforts with you in achieving it. To know what you want to achieve, either individually or as a group, you simply need to ask. What is it I really want? If I actually achieve it, will I be satisfied? It will take lots of effort. Will it be worth it? It is a simple question, one many people have not really asked. It is the first step to getting what you want.
What You Really Want. You might be working hard at achieving an objective. It might even be a clear and obvious objective. The question is whether that is what you really want. If you do not know what you really want to achieve, achieving something less or different probably will not satisfy you, and you will have spent a lot of effort to get there. To achieve what you really want to achieve, you have to be clear and specific. Following the work of our colleague Ralph Keeney‘s value-focused thinking, we use the 3 whys to structure your fundamental objective. What do you think you want to achieve? Why do you want that? And, why do you want that? And, finally, why do you want that? This leads to the higher purpose, or deeper values, actually guiding the impact you want to have. With this higher purpose, you have defined a boundary around the factors that need to be addressed to achieve your desired impact. Knowing what you really want to achieve, either individually or as a group is easy to do. For us, it usually takes less than an hour of real inquiry.
What Drives What You Really Want. While you might know what you want, clear and specific, if you do not know how to achieve it, you are sub-optimizing your efforts, at best. Now you need to know how to achieve it. The “how” might be clear to someone, because others have achieved it (like how to prepare to run a mile), or it might be something nobody has done before (like ending poverty). In either case, the “how” is a hypothesis, and you can increase your odds of learning how to achieve it by setting the intention, engaging people who understand key elements, working collaboratively towards the objective, and adjusting along the way, as you learn from the feedback the world gives you.
What Your Objective Function Does. Once you know the why, the what, and the how, the objective function begins to work throughout your organization. People are making decisions all day long, most of which you are unaware of and do not involve you. You cannot control your way through that, though many leaders try. There are too many decisions constantly being made. This is a danger of an objective function. You do not know how it is actually being operationalized. So, you can either try to control it, which does not work as there are too many decisions being made. You can just hope for the best, which also does not work as it gives no direction or feedback. Or, you can collaboratively engage the people who are making the decisions, constantly informing each other about the decisions being made and the lessons being learned. That has proven to work.
You Can Choose the Agreements. You can see your objective function as a set of agreements, with lots of people acting on those agreements. You can assume that you and everyone else know what those agreements are, that the agreements are the right ones, that the agreements are working to achieve the desired impact, and that no lessons are being learned, so there is no need for adjustments. That does not work well, most of the time. You can also assume that it is important to be clear on the deeper intention, and that it is important that everyone else shares that deeper intention. You can also assume that the agreements need to be surfaced and worked with, on a regular basis, to see if they work well, if they actually do what you think they do, and how to adjust them as the context changes. This is a leadership system based on shared awareness, attention, and feedback amongst the people cohosting the purpose, the objective function. This is what Stuart Russell suggested. It is better to know what is happening and adjust.