Getting Facts Without Friction, and Other Trademarks of Great Optimizers

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

When you are thinking of engaging an optimization advisor or consultant, keep in mind a number of important considerations. Optimization consultants are quants who focus on applying optimization techniques to real-world problems, and they are a unique breed. Think of them as brainiacs on a mission. They are driven to achieve practical results. Their passion is to create software programs that push the limits of computer applications. They could not care less about solving purely theoretical problems. They prefer digging into the nitty-gritty details of running a business and are fascinated by the idea that software can improve operations: from reducing the miles that trucks must travel, to improving the way planes are scheduled, to finding the perfect price that maximizes both sales and profits. All good optimization consultants want to perform miracles, succeed where others have failed, go where few have ventured.

Just as there are a number of distinctions between and good and great optimization software, great optimization consultants differ from merely good ones in several ways. One of these is the way they think about the “size of the prize.” Good optimizers create software to help clients reduce costs. But the best among them know that while cost reduction is a good thing, and you can grab market share by offering a lower-cost product, there are other ways to add value to your enterprise. You can, for instance, command a premium price for the same product by being faster, providing better service, or backing it up with a unique guarantee.

While great optimization consultants engage in hard-core IT and mathematics, their primary mindset is firmly centered in understanding the strategy and tactics of their clients. They ask their clients: What do you see as the next round of competitive advantage? What is the potential for growing this business or for taking it to a new level of play? How big would the prize be of you could get into a new market or supply a new product to your existing market? And while strategy consultants ask the same questions from their sponsors, too often their deliverable is an impressive PowerPoint presentation that seems to imply that beating the competition is mainly about knowing what direction to head in, rather than digging deeply into the fine points of execution. Great optimizers, in contrast, believe that real competitive advantage comes from driving visionary direction with the best possible optimization.

The very best optimization consultants differ from good optimizers in yet another way: they excel at relationship-building. They know that to be effective they must win the trust and respect not only of the members of the optimization team, but of others in the company—especially the decision makers they are working to help. Because project success depends heavily on the quality of the information that the consultants can elicit, they are adept at knowing which questions to ask and how to ask them: inquiring without intruding, judging, or accusing. They use straightforward business language, not arcane specialist language such as that used in optimization mathematics. In short, the best optimization consultants are adept at getting facts without friction.

This post is excerpted from The Optimization Edge: Reinventing Decision Making to Maximize All Your Company’s Assets (McGraw Hill) by Steve Sashihara,