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

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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.

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## Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Become a Tugboat Captain
If your job responsibilities sometimes require that you tell powerful people that they must do something differently, you could find yourself in danger from time to time. You can learn a lot from tugboat captains.
The Shower Effect: Sudden Insights
Ever have a brilliant insight, a forehead-slapping moment? You think, "Now I get it!" or "Why didn't I think of this before?" What causes these moments? How can we make them happen sooner?
Changing the Subject: I
Whether in small group discussions, large meetings, or chats between friends, changing the subject of the conversation can be constructive, mischievous, frustrating, creative, tension relieving, necessary, devious, or outright malicious. What techniques do we use to change the subject, and how can we cope with them?
This Is the Only Job
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Yet again, we missed our goal — we were late, we were over budget, or we lost to the competition. But how can we get something good out of it?

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

## Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Coming October 16: Performance Mismanagement Systems: II
One of the more counter-effective strategies incorporated into performance management systems is the enterprise-wide uniform quota, known as a vitality curve. Its fundamental injustice breeds cynicism, performance fraud, and toxic conflict. It produces performance assessments that are unrelated to enterprise objectives. Available here and by RSS on October 16.
And on October 23: Power Distance and Teams
One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.

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On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program.

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