“Maximizing” means expending time and effort to ensure you’ve solved something as best as possible. It typically needs lots of exploration and analysis to ensure “the best” option hasn’t been overlooked, and that we have confidence in our evaluation of all options.
“Satisficing” means picking the first option that satisfies some given criteria. It’s less time exploring & analyzing, more time acting. It’s not getting paralyzed by the persuit of “perfect,” but it often doesn’t result in finding the very best.
People naturally tend to be Maximizers or Satisficers, although sometimes it depends on the subject. For example, you might maximize your career, but satisfice your physical exercise, i.e. you go for a run a few times per week but without a timer.
A recent study showed something interesting: Maximizers do make better choices, but Satisficers enjoy their choices more, and spend less time and create less stress in making the choice.
In software and startups we can chose when we maximize, and when we satisfice. It might seem like maximizing is best especially when you have teams of smart people who can do the maximizing. But not necessarily.
Speed is one of the greatest competitive advantages, and possibly one of the key reasons why small competitors are able to beat large incumbents, but speed requires satisficing, not maximizing. Strength in startups comes from shipping, with benefits accruing today instead of theoretical benefits in the future, using customer reaction and real data to decide your next move, rather than planning many moves ahead.
Still, maximizing seems best for some decisions. “Product Strategy for 2018” is rightly a slow obsession, best when taken from many angles, pounding it with devil’s advocacy, questioning every assumption, “sleeping on it” many times, repeating pieces of it to customers, strangers, anyone who might have a useful reaction. Strategy isn’t something we want to change often, and entire teams and careers will be built on it, so maximization is best.
For the very most important decisions, maximizing is surely wise. For almost anything else satisficing is likely wiser.
What do you think?
- Are there common examples where engineers satisfice when they should be maximizing?
- Maximize when they should be satisficing?
- What other factors tip the balance toward satisficing or maximizing (e.g., stage of company growth)?