Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 34;   August 22, 2012: Hill Climbing and Its Limitations

# Hill Climbing and Its Limitations

Finding a better solution by making small adjustments to your current solution is usually a good idea. The key word is "usually."

Finding the extreme values of functions is a common problem in mathematics. For instance, one form of the famous "traveling salesman" problem involves finding the shortest path that a traveling salesman can follow to visit all customers in a given district. Algorithms for optimizing functions are called "hill climbing" algorithms if they work by gradually improving a solution, adjusting its attributes one at a time.

The hill climbing metaphor comes from imagining the function's value as being the altitude of a point in a geographical region. To find the highest point in the region, we take one step at a time, always uphill. By always climbing uphill, we hope that we'll find the highest point in the region. The metaphor is so powerful that hill climbing algorithms are called "hill climbing" even when we're minimizing something instead of maximizing.

There's just one problem: hill climbing doesn't always work. For example, suppose you're unlucky enough to start your optimizing on the shoulder of a hill that happens to be the second-highest hill in the region. By always "moving uphill" you will indeed find the peak of that second-highest hill, but you'll never find the highest hill. In effect, the algorithm is "captured" by the second-highest hill and it can't break free.

That's unfortunate, because we use hill climbing often without being aware of it. For instance, when we hire people, we look for attributes that we feel will ensure that we hire the best. One such attribute is experience in efforts exactly like the ones we anticipate. Even though identical experience doesn't necessarily ensure future success, we use experience because we believe that it will take us most steeply "uphill." It's possible, of course, that someone with a different experience background might be just what we need to achieve even better results. But we'll never know, because the current solution has captured us.

This In decision making, we use hill
climbing often without being
aware of it
happens in problem solving too. When we're familiar with one solution, we tend to focus on filling out the rest of that solution, rather than seeking a completely new approach that might lead to a far better solution. Such new approaches are sometimes said to arise from "thinking out of the box."

And most tragically, hill climbing can lead to the downfall of an entire enterprise. A company that's dominant in its market can become captured by the particular way in which it meets customer needs. Even though it searches constantly for innovations, it seeks only those innovations that preserve certain attributes of its current offerings. When a competitor enters the market with a wholly different approach, that competitor can prevail if its solution gives the customer a path to a "higher hill." Think airlines and railroads, iTunes and record stores, or iPhone and Blackberry.

Is your enterprise captured by a hill climbing approach? Maybe it's not too late to do something about it.

Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

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## Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

How We Avoid Making Decisions
When an important item remains on our To-Do list for a long time, it's possible that we've found ways to avoid facing it. Some of the ways we do this are so clever that we may be unaware of them. Here's a collection of techniques we use to avoid engaging difficult problems.
Mudfights
When we steer the discussion away from issues to attack the credibility, motives, or character of our debate partners, we often resort to a technique known as the ad hominem attack. It's unfair, it's unethical, and it leads to bad, expensive decisions that we'll probably regret.
It's a Wonderful Day!
Most knowledge workers are problem solvers. We work towards goals. We anticipate problems as best we can, and when problems appear, we solve them. But our focus on anticipating problems can become a problem in itself — at work and in Life.
A Review of Performance Reviews: Blindsiding
Ever learn of a complaint about you for the first time at your performance review? If so, you were blindsided. Reviews can be painful. Here are some guidelines for making them a little fairer.
False Summits: II
When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end. The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is in project work.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

## Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.

## Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

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