Satisficing vs Maximizing

“Maximizing” means expending time and effort to ensure you’ve solved something as best as possible.  It requires 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 the requirements. Prefer a faster decision to the best decision. It means not getting paralyzed by the pursuit of “perfect,” but it often doesn’t result in the very best solution.

People naturally tend to be Maximizers or Satisficers, although it depends on the subject.  For example, you might maximize your career, but satisfice your physical exercise.

A recent study showed something interesting: Maximizers 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 choose when to Maximize, and when to 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, partially explaining why small up-starts 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 future, using customer reaction and real data to decide your next move, rather than planning many moves ahead.

Still, maximizing is best for some decisions.  Your Product & Business Strategy is rightly a slow obsession, best when taken from many angles, pounding it with devil’s advocacy, questioning every assumption, “sleeping on it” repeatedly, repeating pieces of it to customers, strangers, anyone who might have a useful reaction.  Strategy isn’t something you want to change often, with entire teams and careers to be built on top of it, so maximization is best.

For the most important decisions, Maximizing is wise. For almost anything else, Satisficing is likely wiser.

Make sure you’re not doing one when the situation calls for the other.

12 responses to “Satisficing vs Maximizing”

  1. I imagine sometimes in the situation, one would believe something is really important, and in hindsight, you realize it wasn’t. And maybe worse, discarding something that turns out to be of utmost importance. Any advice on how to feel confident/accurately identify which situation calls for maximizing vs satisficing?

    • Almost nothing is important, in the end. Often just one or two things over a span of years are the only important things. It’s true that figuring out which thing that is, is difficult and maybe impossible to know until after the fact, and perhaps even then it’s unknowable. But what that means, is that usually the answer is not to maximize.

      One way to decide is: Will you continue to get outsized returns (i.e. not diminishing) if you continue to maximize this thing? For most things the answer is “no.” Sometimes it’s “yes.”

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  3. This is a very interesting reflexion.

    For me it’s a matter of timing. I find myself maximizing things that we only satisficed when our startup was giving its first steps.
    There’s a time when after so much fast prototyping, changing and adapting your product for its market fit you realise you have something users are happy with… and then you have a huge technical debt you have to pay sooner than latter. In that situation, I think maximising is the right thing to do, so you product can settle down and scale properly.

    Thanks for the article!

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  5. Great work ! This is awesome. I had never thought of preframing the decision for people who are stuck deciding.

    Great advice.

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