I’ve been mulling over a mental model the past couple of years, expanding on the notion of setting and hitting a singular goal: the idea of optimizing for the ceiling and the floor. It came about from an Exponent podcast episode a couple years back, but in mapping it to subsequent situations, it has at times forced me to think a little deeper about underlying motivations. I figure to share it here.
This is the general gist: for something that can be quantifiably improved, instead of focusing on a singular measurement, consider acceptable upper and lower bounds and decide which one we’re actually trying to improve, and use that decision to inform how to achieve that goal. Abstractly, it can sound like an exercise in fuzzifying absolute values, but the real purpose is to figure out whether it’s more important to minimize or maximize, and use that directionality to help define the strategy.
For instance, job interviews for roles with abundant positions are mostly an exercise in maintaining a talent floor1. Despite some firms’ claims that they only hire the best, candidates are evaluated on whether they “pass the bar.” In other words, offers are made when someone meets the hiring manager’s minimal set of requirements for the job—aspects like technical ability, civility, collaboration, and other associated attributes. Keeping the floor makes sense, as it’s more important to maintain a cordial work environment and minimize disruption.
To go in the other direction, sports are in the business of raising the ceiling of human ability. Granted, there is also a floor at every level of play2 in the form of team tryouts, but the excitement and debates and the entirety of the ESPN empire is reserved for top athletes in their quest to elevate sports to unforeseen heights. Competition, it turns out, is one way to focus on raising the ceiling.
Distinguishing between the ceiling and the floor is useful, in that recognizing which side you’re building towards helps form the strategy to achieve those results. To go back to education as an example, the No Child Left Behind Act was named quite literally to get schools to invest in students falling behind their grade levels, and it used a rigorous set of standardized tests to establish that floor. Conversely, something like the Thiel Fellowship places bets on students, in the hope that some of them go beyond the ceilings imposed by colleges. As a general rule of thumb, floor-raising strategies trend more conservative and are, in some senses, boring as it’s mostly about steady execution and filling in gaps. Ceiling strategies naturally contrast with more risk, flashy when they succeed but sometimes even more dramatic in failure.
Of course, in many cases the ceiling and the floor are actually linked, where driving towards a higher floor means a lower ceiling, and vice versa. This is essentially risk management: a riskier option incurs a higher possibility of spectacular failure, and a safer option necessarily reduces available upside. Financial portfolio management encapsulates this dynamic in the form of bonds and stocks, where bonds feature low returns but less risk of loss, and stocks feature a much wider range of gains and losses. Portfolio management is simply mixing the two to eventually constrain the ceiling and the floor to something that clients find acceptable.
Granted, not everything can or should be reduced to a dichotomy of upper and lower bounds, of optimizing for just the ceiling or the floor. Like most mental models, it’s easy to go overboard with pattern recognition; personally, I’m at times guilty of jumping to a conclusion that the solution must be either raising the floor or the ceiling. I still need to refine my thinking on when the framework applies, but in the mean time it’s a reasonable and easy gut check against potential solutions and whether they’d end up actually fixing the problem.