In linear programming, the objective function is the function that it is desired to maximize or minimize. The human interaction equivalent is what matters most. Agreement on that, and on the steps to get there, enables a more rational, linear way of ratcheting up everyone’s best current thinking, minimizing the time spent on individuals’ emotions and personal agendas.

This variation on the classic tree swing cartoon is all about misaligned objective functions.

The proposer aimed to serve multiple users. The specifier strove for safety. The designer was drawn to the strongest part of the tree. The producer was driven by symmetry. The installer did the best they could with what was produced. The customer wanted simple, safe fun.

If all had agreed up front on the ultimate customer and what mattered most to them, they could have kept that objective function in mind as they worked through all the proposal, specification, design, production and installation choices and decisions.

The steps can be relatively straightforward:


  1. Start with the customer. Understand their needs and what matters most to them – the objective function.
  2. Agree an approach to bridge gaps and overcome barriers focused on design, production, delivery or service as part of an overarching strategy, along with strategic priorities, and the capabilities and enablers required.
  3. Delegate the work on the strategic priorities, capabilities and enablers – with clear direction, resources, bounded authority and accountability.
  4. Do the work – communicating and coordinating, ratcheting up best current thinking, especially across interdependencies along the way.
  5. Bring it all together into what matters most for the customer.



Pitfalls here include focusing on the wrong customer or different customers, and not understanding what matters most to the customer. This is often complicated by the customer either not knowing or not saying what matters most to them.

Invest the time and effort required to get all aligned around the ultimate customer, their various hopes and desires and their most important needs. Those most important needs inform the must have objective function. Their other hopes and desires inform qualifications of the objective function or nice to have, non-mandatory additions.

As noted above, the tree swing customer’s most important need was simple safe fun.



The overall approach and prioritization of effort flows from the nature of the customer’s most important needs and the barriers to overcome.

The tree swing customer’s needs were met by a delivery or assembly solution. There was no need to design or produce anything new. And no service was required.

The necessary and sufficient priorities and resources were something to sit on (a tire) and a way to make it swing (rope and tree branch.)



It would been easy to delegate tree swing resource acquisition to one group and assembly to another. The resource acquirers might have been tasked with finding a usable, normal used tire, rope and branch strong enough to support tire and 75-pound customer. And the assembly group might have been tasked with, wait for it, assembly. Ideally both groups would have clear direction, resources, bounded authority and accountability


  • Direction as to the desired objectives and results so everyone understands the intent and how it fits with the objective function.
  • Resources – The human, financial, technical, and operational resources they need to succeed in line with their direction.
  • Bounded Authority to make tactical decisions within the strategic boundaries and guidelines all agreed to.
  • Accountability – Standards of performance, time expectations, positive and negative consequences of success and failure for those held to account.


The work

Communication and coordination along the way is particularly important if the solution to the objective function requires the components to work interdependently.

In the tree swing example, the length of the rope required is directly related to the height of the tree branch selected.


Bring it all together

The point here is that it’s not all together right until the customer is satisfied. That’s the key to taking the emotion out of disagreements along the way. Customer satisfaction on the objective function is the ultimate arbiter of any disagreement. It’s not about what party A or party B thinks. It’s about what the customer thinks.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #738) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan

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