Stop trying to maximize things

If you follow business advice, you probably hear the word “maximize” thrown around a lot. The most common use is that businesses are trying to “maximize shareholder value” but you’ve probably also heard it used in the context of “maximizing ROI” or “maximizing user engagement” etc.

I think most people gloss over that word like it’s just some kind of filler verb that means “we’re working on this thing”. But that’s not what it means. Look it up in any dictionary and you’ll get a definition similar to “make as large or great as possible”.

That might seem harmless, but there’s a very important implication. If you’re trying to make a thing as large as possible, that means you will do whatever it takes. You will accept significant damage in other areas to squeeze out the slightest improvement. Maximizing isn’t the same as working on something. It’s an excuse for ignoring the consequences of your actions. It’s a destructive obsession.

Think I’m being dramatic? Remember that Facebook memo that leaked back in the day? It’s about how Facebook’s singular goal is to connect people. Here’s a quote from it:

…we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.

And another quote:

Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.

And still we connect people.

The author of that memo now claims that he didn’t mean it, but if you look at Facebook’s behavior, what other explanation could there be? Facebook illegally allowed advertisers to discriminate based on race. They enabled a massive privacy violation which potentially altered the course of the American presidential election, and then they lied to Congress when asked whether or not they knew about it. Facebook literally enabled genocide.

Here’s the thing: I know a number of people who work/worked at Facebook. I consider some of them my best friends. I even once spent a weekend snowboarding with the author of that memo I referenced above and he seemed like a really nice guy. The individuals working at Facebook aren’t evil, but the actions of the company are absolutely evil.

The problem is that word: maximize. By deciding that their mission is to connect people and that anything they do in pursuit of that mission is de facto good, they’ve absolved themselves of responsibility for the side effects. This is systemic. This is the natural outcome of a system that normalizes maximization.

It’s easy to paint Facebook as the bad guy right now, but this applies to every single company trying to maximize shareholder value. If that’s actually their goal (which most companies say explicitly) then of course they will act in unethical ways if there’s money to be made. They aren’t even trying to hide that fact. That’s what the word “maximize” means. They’re saying it out loud in public and no one seems to stop and think that maybe they shouldn’t be maximizing anything.

When we see stories about companies knowingly faking the results of blood tests, starving babies, or creating the opioid epidemic, we shouldn’t be surprised. Most importantly, we shouldn’t dismiss it as the isolated behavior of a few malicious actors. The people involved in those scandals are are just normal employees doing their jobs.

Is there anything to be done?

I don’t know. It seems to me like any systemic fix to this problem would require massive regulatory and cultural change in America. It’s possible that the winds are shifting in that direction, but I’m not holding my breath for a resolution anytime soon.

But even if we can’t fix the whole problem, we can at least do our best not to contribute to it. If anything in this post resonated with your values, I strongly encourage you to remove the word “maximize” from your business vocabulary. And when other people talk about “maximizing shareholder value”, don’t nod along as if that’s normal, healthy behavior.

Most importantly: if you’re a founder/CEO, I’d encourage you to think about the goals of your own business. Don’t just assume that your mission is de facto good. Consider what the unintended consequences of achieving that mission might be. Are you giving your employees permission to act ethically even if it means making a little bit less money? Are you establishing a culture that encourages nuance and appreciates that the world is too complex to ever try to maximize a single metric? Employees share some of this responsibility, but ultimately this type of decision can only be made from the top, and if you haven’t explicitly defined for your team what their priority should be, it’s your fault when they burn the world to the ground just to hit their numbers.

Have thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear from you! I'm @TylerMKing on Twitter.