A Plea For Some In-efficiency – Too much efficiency can be a bad thing

No matter where you look, you will find hundreds of pundits, management consultants, business gurus and organizational experts all singing the praise of efficiency. Efficiency will lead to greater business productivity; it helps you trump your competition; it optimizes margins. Increasing your efficiency reduces waste and puts your resources to work delivering on your goals. It gives you more, for less. Efficiency is worshipped – it’s become the end-all and be-all.

But here’s the problem – efficiency is not an end, in and of itself. Because efficiency doesn’t solve problems, efficiency doesn’t generate creative ideas or innovations, efficiency doesn’t create passion. And efficiency can’t be rallied around. In fact, efficiency doesn’t serve your business purpose; it’s only one tool to help enable it.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you can have too much efficiency. In-efficiency is not always wasteful. In fact, there are lots of reasons that the obsession with efficiency can be counter-productive.

You can miss the opportunity of seeing things in a new way. By definition, efficiency is all about routinizing processes, simplifying and making behaviors predictable and repeatable. You work to find the most efficient route, and do it the same way each time. But this can get, well, routine. And predictable. And boring. Just like on your commute, every now and then you need to take the long way home – and see a new view and a fresh perspective.  In fact, the best views tend to be off the beaten path.

And that’s just it – if you’re busy making behaviors the same each time, you have a hard time being open to innovation and new approaches. You get stuck in patterns. And you can get restricted by the process and the time you’ve allotted for each step. So a super-efficient structure can become an innovation-inhibitor.

You may stop focusing on what really matters – doing great work. When the focus becomes efficiency, the work itself can become secondary. It becomes less important how great the work is than that it’s done, quickly. An extra bit of time to re-think, edit, round out or build upon your thinking? Nope, not allowed. It’s a “get it done and move on” mind-set.

But ideas and creativity don’t always work on a schedule. Sometimes, you simply need to walk off the pre-determined course and put on some additional mileage. Efficiency won’t allow it, but great work demands it, sometimes.

Your focus is overly internal. One thing about focusing on efficiency – you spend much of your time with your head down, focusing on your own work. This helps you keep track of who is doing what, for how long, etc. But it doesn’t do a lot for your inspiration. Instead of keeping your head down at all times, lift it up and spend some time looking outside of your work and business. Go out for lunch, meet with new colleagues and partners, take a walk. And read lots about your industry, as well as outside of it, for inspiration.

Efficiency lacks emotion. Efficiency is logical. “We accomplished this much work in this much time.” “We can cut steps in the process here.” “The schedule can be compressed in this fashion.” But most great work is emotional. And efficiency doesn’t always work perfectly with emotional/non-rational output.

And I defy you to show me examples of when your team waxed poetically about how jazzed they were from the efficiency they drove. What gets them passionate is the power of ideas. CFOs and CEOs may measure and crave efficiency – but even they respond greater to ideas and growth.

Efficiency is frictionless – but friction causes sparks. A core idea behind efficiency is reducing friction – in order to gain speed. Speed equates with getting more done in less time. So organizations aim to shave processes down and remove all the edges and friction. But, when you shave off all the edges of something, you end up with something that, well, has no edge. So things can get a little bland. Sometimes you need some friction to generate creative sparks.

Another thing that friction can do is slow us down. Which is why most efforts towards efficiency are about eliminating friction and waste. But there can be a limit to how frictionless we should be, as Barry Schwartz wrote in the NY Times article called “Economics Made Easy: Think Friction”. A little bit of friction can slow us down enough to make better decisions. The recent housing/credit crisis may have been caused by too much efficiency. A little bit of friction might have been a very good thing.

And while the world is moving faster and faster, as I said in a post in April, it’s never been more important to SLOW DOWN. Slowing down can provide clarity, fosters a different kind of thinking that is more deliberate and methodical, and keeps us from knee-jerk responses. Sometimes you just have to take it slow.

So all you mono-maniacal efficiency-seekers beware – you can have too much of a good thing. So, instead, look for opportunities or reasons to be in-efficient. You’ll be glad you did.

What do you think?


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