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Meredith, head of engineering for a good-size software company, sat in the local coffee house. Not that she drank coffee—she’d never even tried the stuff. But the aroma…it brought back memories of feeling loved and fulfilled. Her entire extended family drank coffee from sunup til sundown. Yet, Meredith had never gotten the urge to try it, for whatever reason.

Sitting with her eyes closed, drinking in the fragrance, she startled when a hand tapped her on her shoulder.

“I called your name several times,” Donny, her chief marketing officer, said, grinning widely. “You were really zoned out there.”

Meredith shook her head. “Really zoned in,” she corrected. “The smell of coffee is the smell of sweetness and safety for me.”

“It’s exactly the opposite for me,” Donny replied. “I’ve been made fun of for drinking coffee my whole life. It surprises me, actually, that I still desire it, as much jibing as I’ve taken for it. But, somehow, people’s razzing only increases how good it tastes.”

“This fascinates me,” Meredith said. “You and I come from completely different perspectives and yet have exactly the same outlook.”

“Everyone brings a different perspective,” Donny agreed.

Too many options can leave us feeling lost and confused

Meredith’s languid demeanor gradually sharpened. “Wait, what did you say?” she asked once her brain had fully engaged.

“’Everyone brings a different perspective’?” Donny repeated.

“Yes, that. What do you mean?”

“What do I mean? I was just agreeing with what you said. We each have very different reasons for being here in this coffee house. And yet we’re also here for exactly the same reason.”

“That’s not at all what I said. Wait. Okay, maybe it is. I’m so confused.”

Donny laughed at Meredith’s rapid-fire change of opinion. “One of those days, is it?”

“You have no idea. I have a looming deadline for making a decision that, while it won’t exactly make or break the company, or even our quarter, will impact my team in some big ways.”

“What about this decision has you so mixed up?”

“Everyone I talk to advises a different decision. I thought I was deciding between two options. But, having talked with fifteen people now, from our chief technology officer down to some fresh-out-of-college engineers, I am juggling thirty-five different possibilities. I’m inclined to let them all fall on the floor, stomp all over all of them, and see which one comes through most unscathed.”

Donny chuckled again, this time in commiseration. “I feel for you. Sometimes I feel deciding without any outside input works better than soliciting other people’s advice. While I appreciate all those different perspectives, they can sometimes be pretty overwhelming.”

“Your decisions really can make or break us. How do you cope?”

“By filtering them through my optimization filter.”

Use your feelings to narrow your choices

“Your ‘optimization filter’? What’s that?”

“My north star, I call it. Other people might call them values, or principles, or success signals. It’s the set of feelings I’m optimizing for.”

“Feelings? You optimize for feelings?”

“I do. People make decisions based on feelings. Especially decisions about what to buy. But, really, every decision comes down to feelings.”

Meredith nodded. “I’ll go along with that. I can’t tell you how many ‘Do we ship this?’ meetings I’ve been part of, where we spent ninety-five percent of the time using all sorts of metrics to argue a logical case for an answer. And then, when we get down to finally deciding, all that logic goes out the window. People always say their gut says the metrics don’t tell the whole story, or that one particular number feels wrong, or that a particular decision ‘just feels right.’”

Donny nodded. “Feelings are behind everything we do. In business, we try to hide that behind a façade of logic and reason. Yet, as you say, we always go with our feelings.”

“Not every time,” Meredith objected. “Or we’d never hear someone exclaim, ‘I knew that felt wrong!’”

“We always go with our feelings,” Donny reiterated. “Sometimes, though, our feelings aren’t what we believe they are. When someone makes a decision they feel is wrong, they probably make it out of fear.”

“Oh, that feels right,” Meredith said. “At least, I know fear was in play the last time I did that.”

“Well,” Meredith continued after a pause, “I know now fear was in play. I wasn’t conscious of it then.”

“That’s one reason I use my optimization filter.”

Focus on the impact you want to have

“Like so many of us, I grew up in business pretending I didn’t have emotions,” Donny said. “And they kept bursting out at the most awkward and embarrassing times. So I started paying attention to them out of self-defense.”

“I can relate to that,” Meredith said ruefully. “Always they burst out in the most embarrassing ways.”

“I wanted a way to quickly scan what I was feeling and use that to decide. I was also recognizing that my emotions affected the people around me. I knew I wanted that impact to be intentional. That led me to identify what I wanted my impact to be, and to describe that impact in terms of the feelings I want people to feel.”

“But we can’t make people feel anything,” Meredith objected. “I’ve learned that the hard way.”

“You’re right, we can’t. We can choose actions we believe will foster certain feelings and discourage others.”

“Oh, I get it. For example, if I know you love ice cream and hate pie, I can offer you ice cream when I want you to feel good and force pie on you when I want you to be grumpy.”

“Yes. While I always want my impact to help people feel better, some people certainly seem to intend the reverse.”

“So, when you’re deciding what to do, you run each option forward and estimate its result and how that will likely feel. You match those feelings against the feelings you’re intending to engender. And, I guess, you then choose the option that matches up best?”

“Or I keep looking, if none of my options get me close enough.”

Filter your choices through the impact your desire

“This gives me a way to wade through all this advice I’ve received,” Meredith said. “We’ve been focusing a lot recently on our team principles and values. I hadn’t realized ‘til now that we’ve used mostly feeling words. So, I can use those feelings to filter my options.”

“Remember to use your own optimization filter as well. You are the one making this decision, not your team. So, while you want to take your team’s best interest into account, you are the one who must most feel right about the decision.”

“Hmmm, you’re right. I feel pretty aligned with the team’s values, but not completely. I probably want to understand where I’m different, and explain that to the team. And then, as you say, optimize for my filter as well as for the team’s.”

Donny picked up his mug and then grimaced. “I’m empty. Time for a refill. Would you like anything while I’m up?”

“No, thank you. I’m going to spend some time outside, mulling all this over, then go back to the office.”

They both moved away from the table and headed for the front of the café.

“Thank you, Donny, for this brilliant idea. I can already tell optimization filters will simplify my life in many different ways. I can’t thank you enough.”

“You are so welcome. I’m happy I helped you gain some clarity. That means I’m having the impact I want to have.”

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