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

by

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."
Dunes in Death Valley, California

Dunes in Death Valley, California. Dunes are of course transitory, moved about constantly by wind action. At the time of this photograph, we can see several possible "hill peaks" of the kind we imagine when we use hill climbing algorithms. Looking at the photo, it's easy to understand how hill climbing algorithms can be captured by local maxima, thereby preventing them from finding even higher maxima. Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre 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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenrDUDwWaUxOAJtKFRner@ChaclWPJpPZohNvtYLEJoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

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.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Answering machine controlsAt the Sound of the Tone, Hang Up
When the phone rings, do you drop whatever you're doing to answer it? Do you interrupt face-to-face conversations with live people to respond to the jerk of your cellular leash? Listen to seemingly endless queues of voicemail messages? Here are some reminders of the choices we sometimes forget we have.
Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Toto tooThe Hypothetical Trap
Politicians know that answering hypothetical questions is dangerous, but it's equally dangerous for managers and project managers to answer them in the project context. What's the problem? Why should you be careful of the "What If?"
An appealing plate of pasta (not what I ate that evening)If Only I Had Known: I
Have you ever regretted saying something that you wouldn't have said if only you had known just one more little fact? Yeah, me too. We all have. Here are some tips for dealing with this sticky situation.
Ancient stairs at ruins in CambodiaThe True Costs of Indirectness
Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict. It can be an expensive practice.
Eastern Redcedar in crossection, with white sapwood on the outside edges, and red to deep reddish-brown heartwoodThe Retrospective Funding Problem
If your organization regularly conducts project retrospectives, you're among the very fortunate. Many organizations don't. But even among those that do, retrospectives are often underfunded, conducted by amateurs, or too short. Often, key people "couldn't make it." We can do better than this. What's stopping us?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An onion, sliced and dicedComing December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.

Coaching services

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

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The
Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.