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Embracing the power of sub-optimization

Not every moment or task needs to be optimized, writes Julie Winkle Giulioni, who advises leaders to try some sub-optimization.

4 min read



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Today’s workplace — and the world in general — is all about optimization. Our phone apps allow us to order a cup of coffee, weekly groceries and more for quick pick-up, sometimes without even exiting our cars. We try to keep up with the speed of business by scheduling back-to-back-to-back meetings with little time to refresh or act upon the outcomes of those meetings. We seek out new tools and technology that can streamline tasks — not to lighten our loads but to allow us to take on ever more daunting levels of productivity. 

Julie Winkle Giulioni
Winkle Giulioni

And we wonder why burnout is at an all-time high.

Many of us were raised in environments built upon Puritanical values that honor optimization. Which of these messages did you hear growing up?

  • With great gifts comes the responsibility to use them.
  • That opportunity may not come around again.
  • Use it or lose it.
  • Make the most of each moment.
  • You can have it all. You can do it all.

The drive to optimize all things — gifts, strengths, opportunities, time, assets — has been baked into our DNA. Or at least mine. In fact, my family often refers to our vacations as death marches through whatever new country we might be visiting. Because I might never return, I feel compelled to make the most of each trip.

And yet, am I? Am I making the most of a trip by exhausting myself (and the family) with too many daily activities? Am I being as efficient as possible by multitasking morning, noon and night? Does squeezing one more project into the schedule serve my clients?

What’s the cost of this level of optimization?

Personally, I’m coming to realize that the casualties of this level of drive include joy, serendipity and sustainable energy levels. But there are costs professionally as well. When leaders engage in this sort of continuous, over-the-top optimization, they may find themselves overlooking or missing:

  • Opportunities to connect with their people, understand their motivations and connect them more powerfully with their work.
  • Evolving customer issues and problems (that only grow when not addressed).
  • Product and process improvement opportunities.
  • The ability to listen deeply and learn from others.
  • Subtle but important cues related to team dynamics.
  • Ideas and possibilities for new collaborations.
  • Activities and interactions that bring inspiration, joy and energy.

These kinds of costs and missed opportunities reveal our preoccupation with optimization for what it is: arrogant. It assumes we always know what’s most important, how things operate and the best course of action. But let’s face it: The future is uncertain. Today’s workplace is volatile. Change is the only constant. Old ways of wringing the most from each day may not serve leaders –or anyone — as they did in the past.

That’s why today’s leaders may be well-served instead of optimizing by embracing strategic sub-optimization. And this involves the discipline of making space for serendipity and the unexpected.

Space-making operates on two levels. Externally, it’s about freeing up time for what’s not scheduled. This means overcoming the common “It may never come along again” thinking and instead saying no to some (even interesting) projects and activities. It means setting aside (and ferociously protecting) time to think and connect and lightening meeting agendas to allow for more organic exchange. 

But space-making for serendipity and the unexpected also operates internally. It requires a quieter and more attentive mind, free of distractions (including what needs to get done next). It involves curiosity, looking at the world with less judgment and more wonder. And it demands redefining what success looks like — moving beyond busyness to wholeness as the yardstick for effective and hard work.

Sub-optimization is a provocative and counter-intuitive response to escalating workloads, stressors and expectations. And yet, the spaciousness to wonder, reflect and connect will unlock new understandings, generate fresh solutions, invent innovative products and services, and generate 21st-century ways of working that will lead to positive and sustainable results.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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