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Big Ideas

Why You Should Be Optimizing

You're not truly capitalizing on your success unless you're optimizing it. A look at how ongoing, incremental tweaks help good projects become GREAT.

If you work in technology or web development, you’ve likely heard the term “optimization” thrown around quite a bit. It’s the process of incrementally improving a product or service through small iterations. As anyone who manages an online business knows, launching a great site is just the beginning – constant tweaks and upgrades are required to create something truly extraordinary.

But why should we limit the concept of optimization to the world of technology? I would argue that we should spend just as much time on optimizing ourselves and our teams. Although the natural tendency is to stick with what works, true growth comes from constantly challenging ourselves (and our projects) in little ways every day.

Here are some insights to consider when pursuing optimization:

1. Tinker With What Works

When you make an error, you are likely to persevere and keep trying until you get it right. But when you get it right – when you hit a home run – the human tendency is to rejoice and then move on to the next challenge. Despite research that encourages us to build on our strengths, we spend more time fixing what’s broken than optimizing what works. Why? Because any measure of success impairs our ability to imagine something better.

I call this the “horizon of success” effect, because it’s hard to see the potential that lies beyond something that works. While it seems logical to risk failure by trying something completely new, it’s unsettling to tamper with a known success. The old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” cripples us when it comes to optimizing what works. Yet, the very premise of optimization is that we must constantly fix what isn’t broken.

The old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ cripples us when it comes to optimizing what works.

2. Make Incremental Tweaks, Not Drastic Changes

Optimization isn’t about making drastic changes. Introducing too many risk factors into a successful project or system IS dangerous. The key to optimization is making incremental tweaks in a controlled and measurable way.

Google is famous for its relentless “A/B testing,” a form of optimization that involves making minor adjustments to their applications and then testing them, side by side, with their previous versions. Using the world as their testers, Google will run a “version A” (the current version) and “version B” (the experiment) – with minor tweaks – and then compare the results. Version B might have a sign-up button moved one tenth-of-an-inch to the right, compared to version A. If version B garners 3% more clicks, then version B becomes the standard and replaces A. And then the process repeats itself.

By running isolated tests and measuring the outcome, Google is able to improve their products without the risk of damaging a successful business. When you decide to tweak what works, introduce one factor at a time and identify how you will measure the impact before you start to test.

3. Conduct Some “A/Me” Testing

We should optimize not only our projects but also ourselves. Just as you might run A/B tests on your products, services, and marketing efforts, you can also optimize your own workflow. Doing “A/Me” testing involves you comparing the way you always work “Me” to a slightly tweaked approach (the “A” in this case). As you encounter problems like reactionary workflow  and check-in addictions, you’ll want to experiment with optimization in your own life.

Perhaps you question the usefulness of checking your email on your mobile phone as soon as you wake up every morning? Try shifting the time for one week, instead waiting to check it until you begin your commute or arrive at the office. Then, comparing how the week felt under this new discipline, you can decide whether or not to institute this change going forward.

Introduce one factor at a time and identify how you will measure the impact before you start to test.

Whatever your quest for self-improvement, it’s important to approach A/Me testing – and all optimization efforts – with three best practices in mind:

  • Seek forms of measurement. The more quantifiable the outcome, the better. Look no further than the burgeoning “Quantified Self” movement to see the benefits of data for self-improvement.
  • Introduce only one change at a time. Remember that, by introducing too many changes at once, you will increase risk and lose the ability to track the impact of a particular change. Sweeping change is not optimization.
  • Don’t assume that just because something works it can’t be better. On the contrary, efforts to optimize should be spent on your strengths. The difference between 95 percent and 100 percent is small tweaks. Find your 95 percent and bring it home, because this is the area where you are most likely to change the world.

Optimization isn’t about drastic change or self-help, and it isn’t spiritual. It’s all technique. You can’t rest on your laurels. Despite the quality of your ideas and output, the impact you will make largely depends on your ability to constantly optimize – to build on your successes and grow them into something greater.

What Do You Think?

In an effort to optimize these early thoughts on optimization, I invite you to share your thoughts and personal strategies on the topic!

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (12)
  • LeanSE

    Nice article.

    In systems engineering, “optimize” means to find the best solution. It doesn’t matter how you do it. Incrementally is good…however, if you start in the wrong place, you may find yourself “boxed in” so that you can never get from where you are, to the best solution. You might only be able to improve to “local optima;” i.e., something that’s better, but disconnected from something else that’s *much* better because it requires a discontinuity to get there (i.e., you have to change so much that it becomes a “drastic change” in your parlance above).

    In other words, emergence or incrementalism is a useful technique; however, in the Agile world it becomes the *only* technique. An up-front search for the “global optimum” (the truly-best state), while usually impossible to actually find up front, can land you in a part of the solution space where incrementalism can take you to the global optimum…instead of just a local optimum.

  • Maicon Sobczak

    Totally agree with you. Radical changes fail in most of the cases. Little changes are easy to manage and increase the chances of success.

  • GraphicDesignBoss

    I’m a graphic designer who has 20 years experience. Owned my own business for the last 10 years. I totally agree with you that you should always be trying to improve your systems and increase your productivity. Tweak, don’t go all radical!

    Over the years I’ve tweaked our production system to improved efficiency and increase productivity. I’ve blogged about one unusual (but with great results) way I optimized our work-flow systems on my graphic design blog “3 Smart Steps That Will Improve Your Productivity & Increase Your Profitability”

  • shanleyknox

    thank you for this! in the midst of starting my own np helping Ugandan women – and I am constantly aware that all the little things adding up are what make it successful. i find so many small things are what make up my day, right now – and they are ALL important, even though they seem insignificant, in themselves.

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  • BPR

    I love it!

    Even for the non-engineers among us (that would be me), the general principles can easily be adapted. My work uses a “notice, get curious and play” approach that really encompasses the broad stroke of what you’re suggesting.

    Notice what works, what doesn’t, and what could work better (or differently). Just notice. Nothing to do

    Get curious about what’s happening, relationships, cause-and-effect, patterns, and more.

    Play and experiment, poke around see what happens when you change this or that.

    Focusing on one thing at a time is a good reminder for me–I’m in the midst of creating a workbook that will get people playing with the tools and techniques they use to get stuff done, know and follow their schedule and commitments, and focus on what matters to them. It’s a follow-up to the free ebook I just finished (which people here may really like:

    The Curious Person’s Alternative to Time Management: Delete the Stress. Do What Matters. Enjoy Life. (at

    Thanks for another great post!!!

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  • Steve Donatelli

    Some great thoughts here… We’ve applied the above mentioned technique as a discipline for “brand optimization”.

  • Matthew Cornell

    Thanks for the article, Scott. I’m 100% in agreement. I’m a Quantified Self blogger, but I’m also creating a philosophy of life based on the scientific method where you treat everything as an experiment (I’m calling it Think, Try, Learn). It goes to exactly your point – continuously improving ourselves by trying new things. Your idea of optimizing what works is sound advice for converging on improved solutions. In addition to optimizing like this, you can try something radically new to you. This might be something you’ve decided needs doing (such as solving a problem or trying to come up with a new idea), or may be an accidental discovery that you want to follow up on because it seems promising. Either way, it’s tapping our innate curiosity-driven urge to explore. Great stuff! P.s. If you’re interested, check out my Edison site –… . It’s a tool and community of active self-experimenters who are trying all kinds of things to improve themselves. Two new features I just added are group experiments (where you can create an experiment that others can join and do together) and quantitative data (where you can set up measurements to test how your experiment is coming along). Thanks again — matt

  • personal improvement

    Really you have done a good job.
    The written style is very prompt and the highly practical manners.

    personal improvement

  • Jonathan Patterson

    Awesome article. I agree, even changing two things versus one makes it much more difficult to gauge results. If you recognize this key piece of advice, as the article explains, you can really make optimization (in life and design) work extremely well.

  • Søgemaskineoptimering

    Very Nice article i like it. Thanks for share this

  • blaine

    Awesome post! Entirely I accept your information as well as I never forgets what you say about web development. It is always needed to each web developers. They can know lots of better idea about web development.

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