Harmonise, don’t optimise

As a kid, I remember getting Gran Turismo 3 and a Playstation 2 for Christmas. I also remember the excitement caused by winning my first few races and accumulating enough credits to buy a decent car and some upgrades. But that excitement soon fled. I bought the best exhaust I could. I got the best tires. I purchased the best gear and engine mods available. But my cherished car was still slower on the straights and more sluggish in the corners than the computer opponents I was up against.

Years later, I played Forza 3 on the Xbox 360. The same story; I put time and effort into upgrading my fleet of cars, but I rarely beat the modest cars driven by other players online. 

These were the first lessons I recall experiencing in systems excellence. Another arrived when I became enamoured with the NBA. I’d follow teams all season, silently betting that the ones with the best superstars would always come out on top. Frequently, my assumptions would be blown apart. The teams that worked together and played for each other usually outperformed the organisation that was stacked with big names.

One more. When I looked into building a PC, I found out that it’s not as simple as buying the best components and slapping them together. In fact, combining the best-in-class components would probably result in mediocre performance. Better to purchase mindfully and assemble modest parts that function well together and complement one another.

All the above are examples of the complexity of organisations and machines. I say “complexity” because they all have as a property a propensity for non-linear responses. Replacing the point guard of an NBA team with one who’s twice as good won’t necessarily make the team twice as good. It might make the team five times as good, or it might cause their performance to plummet. It’s hard to tell. Which brings to mind some words from Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: “Anyone who understands systems will know immediately that optimising parts is not a good route to system excellence.” So, if the optimisation of parts is not a good strategy for achieving excellence, what is? The answer is harmony.

Let’s run with a personal example. If I were to optimise the parts of my life, would I achieve system excellence? If I tightened up my time usage, cut relationships that didn’t yield maximum utility, pursued only mindfully chosen priorities, and left no resources unallocated or unaccounted for, would I achieve peak performance? Perhaps, for a time. But sooner or later, something would give. 

Now, what if I tried to harmonise the parts of my life? What if I tried to ensure that my relationships complemented and supported my work, that my work contributed to my physical and mental health, and that my health and energy was directed back into my work and relationships? Would I achieve excellence? And more importantly, would the excellence I achieve be more sustainable? I think so.

The effects of harmony—of strong links between seemingly disparate parts—always outweigh optimisation. There’s a reason a recent New York Times article about the Golden State Warriors made much of their comradeship. The high fives and the chemistry won them the championship. Yes, they have great players. But the best in every single position? The strongest bench? The best coaching staff? Perhaps not. For these elite athletes, and for us too, harmony is more important and impactful than optimisation.