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Connecting the Dots

February 20, 2012 by Ron Averill

There is little debate that Steve Jobs was one of the greatest innovators of our time. His curiosity and creativity are benchmarks for both individuals and companies. One of my favorite Jobs quotes appeared in Wired, February 1996:

Connecing the Dots“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

“Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

Steve Jobs was not referring to mathematical optimization when he made these statements, but it would be difficult to find better words than these to motivate people to use a global optimization search process. Let me explain why.

Most global optimization search algorithms are referred to as “multi-point” methods. They combine information from multiple design evaluations, often in disparate parts of the design space, to decide which new points to evaluate next. The goal is to mix the useful elements of one design with the promising features of another design to generate an even better solution.

When a global optimizer decides to evaluate a point far away from what seems to be a promising region of the design space, the purpose is to discover new designs and ideas that might improve existing or future designs. It’s a lesson Jobs learned many times during his career. Like when he chose to study calligraphy after dropping out of college, and then years later called upon that experience to develop the fonts that made the original Apple computer so appealing.

As Jobs suggested, the more designs you’ve already evaluated and the more diverse these designs are, the greater the number of elements and features available to be connected. Even when a good design is already in hand, breaking through to the next level of performance may require a new idea from a different part of the design space. This is why as a local search is refining a design, you should continue to broadly explore the design space for that key idea – the one that, when connected with one of your existing designs, can cause real innovation to occur.

When most of the designs in a multi-point search process start to look similar, the search stalls. There are no more new experiences available to connect. The broad perspective is lost. The search becomes more localized (“linear”), and the chance of making other than incremental improvement is slim.

For this reason, multi-point search methods take great care to maintain diversity in the pool of design candidates throughout the entire search process. This helps to ensure that the search will not get stuck in a local valley, and that there will be plenty of dots to connect during later search cycles.