Posted by: rolfsky | October 24, 2008

optimization is the enemy of innovation

Innovation is exploring the “new”; and by definition, the new is unoptimized and inefficient.

Optimization is the enemy of innovation. Or should I say, innovation and optimization usually inhabit opposite ends of the strategy spectrum.

Innovation is the process of identifying the possible, constantly changing and expanding upon what is currently achievable. Optimization, on the other hand, is the process of refining existing processes, cutting them down to the more and more essential pieces for greater efficiency.

Earlier this week I presented at and attended the Innovation Immersion conference in Phoenix. There, my eyes were really opened up to what other organizations call “innovation”. It seems there are as many implementations of innovations as there are different company structures.

While preparing for my presentation, I looked back on our Disruptive Innovation team, and how it fit within the grand scheme of eBay’s organizational structure. While we were far removed from John Donahoe’s statements about disruptive innovation of the organization, I believe we played a small but vital role in the end.

One conclusion I came to was that the desire to have an “innovation team” is a direct response to a perceived lack of internal innovation capability. Whether or not internal innovation is really lacking, perception is reality.

I then sat down and really asked myself whether I should be advocating for organizations to have an innovation team. If the team was really a placeholder for a perception of needing change, wouldn’t it just be better to change the culture?

I believe that all small, young companies are probably innovating “enough”, perhaps as much as they can possibly handle. In the beginning stages of a business, innovation is a way of being. There is never enough money, time, or resources to get things done “right”, so things are done however they can be done. The possible is recognized and embraced daily.

Over time, patterns of success are recognized and emphasized and the business slowly begins to tilt in those directions. Growth reinforces success. And processes that work, become mandatory.

The business will align itself with whatever it has “found” to “work”. Managers will begin to manage to these principles because their success relies on the success of their employees, and everybody will try to hire the prospective candidates which appear best suited for the environment.

As the business grows, these success patterns will become ingrained into the business. If growth is the primary objective, all decisions will be optimized towards efficiency. Whatever mix of employees you started with, they will be selected by evolution and “optimised” themselves.

You may end up with a corporate culture that has become some highly optimized that it’s unable to “innovate” any longer. Far past are the days of a small, lithe, company; this has become an efficient machine, and brilliant factory.

And yet here’s the kicker:

innovation is by definition the enemy of optimization, yet over-optimization is the enemy of long-term viability.

The balance is between achieving acceptable growth while maintaining long-flexibility. You never know what’s around that next corner.

UPDATE- The more general way of saying this is:

specialization is the antithesis of flexibility (unless, of course, you specialize in being flexible)



  1. […] Optimization is the enemy of innovation – Pattern Hound   […]

  2. As an enemy, optimization does not compare to use of the traditional top-down command and control approach to managing people. Top-down by its nature demotivates and demoralizes employees by completely failing to satisfy their most basic needs of being heard and being respected.

    Eschewing top-down and adopting its opposite of bottom-up can lead to unleashing each employee’s full potential of creativity, innovation, productivity, motivation, and commitment on their work. This huge store will make performance soar and morale will be right with it.

    To learn more about a superior management strategy, please read these Leadership Articles starting with the article “Leadership, Good or Bad”.

    Best regards, Ben

  3. @ben Hi Ben, thanks for taking the time to add in your perspective. I read the article you suggested, and I agree that a top-down management strategy can often cause major problems.

    I think you probably read my term of “optimization” too narrowly; I meant to include all forms optimization, including adhering to a top-down management strategy. I believe the desire to improve, streamline, or optimize above all else reinforces patterns that are quantifiable with a known trajectory, “better safe than sorry”.

    And in this process of streamlining, we lose our flexibility. This happens in animal evolution as neatly as it does in business evolution.

  4. Rolf,

    I am unsure of the value of the word optimization as concerns managing resources and functions. It seems that optimizing might be considered by some as just another term for “continuous improvement” – not just doing the same thing a little bit better, but doing better at the goal such as managing people. So I would not personally use that term in a general way.

    It was my perseverance in gaining higher and higher performance from my people that took me from a level of x to 2x and later to 4x. Along the way I had two major revelations and made one major 180 degree change in my approach.

    Best regards, Ben

  5. @ben Yes, words and how you define them are always a tricky thing.

    If you’d like to send me a copy of your eBook, perhaps I can incorporate some better language in future posts. 🙂


  6. I doubt you need any help with words, Rolf. But if you do, my book would not be of aid.

    Best regards, Ben

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