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Optimising for "performance" is directional #cop26


In the week where the worlds “leaders” meet to discuss and agree on the future of our climate at #COP26, I remain sceptical about agreements. At #COP22 there was an agreement to halve deforestation by 2020; we missed it, so we have moved the target out. Here is a review of all the past COP meetings and outcomes. It is hard to find any resources to compare previous agreements with achievements. Below is from the UN.

The reason I remain doubtful and sceptical is that the decision of 1.5 degrees is framed. We are optimising for a goal. In this case, we do not want to increase our global temperature beyond 1.5 degrees. Have you ever tried to heat water and stop the heating process such that a temperature target was reached. Critically you only have one go. Try it. Fill a pan with ice and set a target, say 38.4 degrees, use a thermometer and switch off the pan when you think the final temperature will be your target. Did you manage to get within 1.5 degrees of your target?

When we optimise, for one thing, something else will not have an optimal outcome.

The Peak Paradox framework forces us to think that we cannot optimise for one outcome, one goal, one target or for a one-dimensional framing. To do so would be to ignore other optimisations, visions, ideas or beliefs. When we optimise, for one thing, something else will not have an optimal outcome.

In business, we are asked to articulate a single purpose, one mission, the single justification that sets out a reason to exist. The more we as a board or senior leadership team optimise for “performance”, the more we become directional. Performance itself, along with the thinking that drives the best allocation of resources, means we are framed to optimise for an outcome. In social sciences and economics, this is called path dependency. The unintended consequences of our previous decisions that drive efficiency and effectiveness might not directly impact us, but another part of an interdependent system that, through several unconnected actions, will feed into our future decisions and outcomes. Complex system thinking highlights such causes and effects of positive and negative feedback loops.

By example. Dishwasher tablets make me more productive but make the water system less efficient by reducing the effectiveness of the ecosystem. However, I am framed by performance and my own efficiency; therefore, I have to optimise my time, and the dishwasher is a perfect solution. Indeed we are marketed that the dishwasher saves water and energy compared to other washing up techniques. The single narrow view of optimisation is straightforward and easy to understand. The views we hold on battery cars to mobile phones is framed as one of being more productive. Performance as a metric matters more than anything else, why because the story says performance creates economic activity that creates growth that means fewer people are in poverty.

“Performance” is a one-dimensional optimisation where economic activity based on financial outcomes wins. You and I are the agents of any increase in performance, and the losses in the equation of equilibrium are somewhere else in the system. We are framed and educated to doubt the long, complex link between the use of anti-bacterial wipes and someone else’s skin condition. Performance as a dimension for measurement creates an optimal outcome for one and a sub-optimal outcome for someone else.

Performance as a measure creates an optimal outcome for one and a sub-optimal outcome for someone else.

If it was just me, then the cause and effect relationship are hard to see, but when more of humanity optimises for performance, it is the scale at which we all lose that suddenly comes into effect. Perhaps it is time to question the simple linear ideas of one purpose, one measure, one mission, and try to optimise for different things simultaneously; however, that means simple political messages, tabloid headlines, and social-media-driven advertising will fail. Are leaders ready to lead, or do they enjoy too much power to do the right thing?


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