Lately I’ve been intrigued by the difference between algorithmic and heuristic work. In Algorithmic work the process is defined and the end product is expected. We follow a set of instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion. By definition there are no surprises unless the algorithm breaks down and the result is unexpected. Heuristic work is the opposite, because there is no algorithm for it. We devise ideas and strategies, experiment and create hypotheses until a solution is found.
Algorithmic work may include tasks like manufacturing, simple computer programming, delivering packages or checking customers out at the super market. While heuristic tasks might include devising a new script to solve a bug in a software program, creating a new marketing campaign, implementing a new sales presentation or creating a new iPhone app.
The future of our economy will rely more and more on the heuristic approach vs. the algorithmic. Increasingly, algorithmic tasks are being offshored or automated to reduce costs while creative work that is inherently heuristic is more in demand to drive our new economy forward. Heuristic work also has the additional benefit of being more fulfilling than following an algorithm. For those lucky enough to engage in primarily heuristic work, the ability to make an impact is elevated.
This is new to us. For much of the 20th century, most work was purely algorithmic and workplaces were tightly managed. Whether white collar or blue collar, the work environment was rote with little room for dissent or challenging assumptions that came from the top. While the change may be gradual, many people working in today’s economy are given far more autonomy over how they approach their work than ever before, so long as the end result is a good one.
But what happens when an inherently heuristic job becomes algorithmic? The marketing professional who uses the same approach and strategic plan to bring a product to market without regard for the unique idiosyncrasies of their target market. The stand-up comedian who does the same exact routine each and every night or the band who plays the same set of songs the same way every night of their tour. The clinician who uses the same care plan for each diagnosis without accounting for the personal needs of their patient. It takes the meaning out of creative expression, it stunts growth by limiting discovery and exploration, and ultimately outcomes suffer.
Don’t fall into the trap of following algorithms when a better approach may be available. Make the time to think, take risks, challenge assumptions, explore, push. Be vulnerable to failure and remember the long game, you’ll create better work over the long haul.