Remind Yourself Maximum Performance Is Not Necessarily Optimum Performance

Last week I wrote about a blog entry Seth Godin made in January that examined phrases like “The purpose of society is to maximize profit” and “The only purpose of a company is to maximize long-term shareholder value.

I intentionally wrote about Godin’s January post in order to provide some additional context for a post he made recently. (Though last week’s post got some pretty good response so check it out too)

I once drove home from college at 100 miles an hour. It saved two hours. My old car barely made it, and I was hardly able to speak once I peeled myself out of the car.

That was maximum speed, but it wasn’t optimum.

Systems have an optimum level of performance. It’s the output that permits the elements (including the humans) to do their best work, to persist at it, to avoid disasters, bad decisions and burnout.

One definition of maximization is: A short-term output level of high stress, where parts degrade but short-term performance is high.

This excerpt from his post addresses a number of issues faced by non-profit organizations.

First is the obvious reminder that it is easy to equate optimum outputs with maximum outputs.

This mistaken equivalency is the basis for the whole “X needs to run more like a business,” and “X should be self-supporting or close” sentiment. The work non-profits do can’t be maximized because it involves interacting and responding to humans, not providing products for human consumption.  There is a difference between helping someone cultivate their creative abilities and producing the computers, instruments, paint, lighting or fabric that serve as a medium of creative expression.

Which is not to say it didn’t take Crayola a fair bit of time and effort to develop their new blue crayon, but the trial and error mixing chemical compounds can be accomplished a lot faster and with fewer repercussions than involved in trying to use that crayon to express what is inside yourself.

The second obvious reminder for non-profits is Godin’s point that humans are one of the elements that is susceptible to burnout. Optimum output is nowhere near the maximum output staff are capable of but the replacement cost is pretty high.

We are all pretty much aware of these issues because the problem is discussed across a range of forums. Still the press of societal expectations make it easy to succumb to the mistaken notion that maximum equals optimum and therefore if our organization isn’t working to its maximum ability, we are not producing optimal results.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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