Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

Monthly Archives: June 2012

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?

A MILLION Shades of Grey – Get comfortable with ambiguity, or get out of business

Last week I wrote that there are no “right” answers – that, because most issues are complex, multi-faceted and dynamic, the dialectic of “right vs. wrong” is inappropriate. You have to make decisions based on better vs. worse instead. If this is true, then it suggests that we better be comfortable with ambiguity. Because everything has lots of shades of grey (my apologies to those who thought this article was going to be about a different “Shades of Grey”).

There are lots of reasons for the ambiguity surrounding seemingly everything these days. We’re living in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. Macro-economic conditions are pressurized and in constant threat of up-ending our economy (in fact, some economists are calling this post-recessionary period “The Great Ambiguity”). The political dynamics of our time have never been more polarized. Business is in constant evolution/revolution, with long-standing companies and categories being fundamentally turned upside down and new, billion dollar businesses being invented daily. Nearly everything that used to be held as a given seems now to be under question and changing hourly.

But all is not lost. Good leaders can get comfortable with ambiguity, and even use it to drive better ideas, work and success. Understanding that you can never have all the answers is the first step. Recognizing that things change, no matter how well you set your strategy and plan, also is important. And knowing that life is messy and that you can’t avoid a bumpy ride will help.

But what can you do when faced with those shades of grey? How can you avoid being paralyzed by the lack of a “right” answer?

Bring clarity to the problem. In almost all situations, there is no one answer, no silver-bullet solution. But you will help yourself immeasurably by spending time clearly identifying and understanding the problem. As I’ve written before, defining the problem you are solving goes a long way towards solving

So spend as much time and focus as you can on understanding. Know as much about the underlying factors, the root causes, the business below the business. Keep digging, until the amount of knowledge-return is less than the effort of digging. Then start solving.

Don’t fear failure. And don’t fear fear, either. Fear is one of the great de-stabilizers. And it’s a key factor that causes people to be uncomfortable with ambiguity. When you aren’t sure what the “right” thing to do is, you become concerned you will do the “wrong” thing – and fail. Instead, do your best to embrace the possibility of failure. And remember that you can never have it all figured out.

Because you can only fail by trying to do something. Just remember to learn from your mistakes, make incremental improvements, and formulate a plan for next time.

Measure and learn. Another thing you’ll need to do in order to deal with ambiguity is have a maniacal demand to measure and learn from your actions. Since you can’t be sure whether your in-going assumptions are “right”, you need to ensure you have put in place the right analytics to help you find out. And be prepared to act on whatever you learn. Because measuring without response is a waste of time.

Trust yourself and your team. As hard as it may seem at the moment, you need to have self confidence and trust in your colleagues to deal with all that lack of surety. With the proper belief in yourself and team, you can be confident you’ll be able to figure it out as you go along. In the words of Ray Bradbury, “you’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” Having confidence in your ability to build those wings before you hit bottom will be very helpful.

Use the tension to produce ideas. The uncertainty and ambiguity you feel can cause tension. Rather than letting that tension cause paralysis and dissension, instead enable the tension to lead to ideas and innovation. Solicit input from others, especially those outside your immediate group. Brainstorm and bounce thoughts off each other. Take some logic and lateral leaps. And don’t expect the “right” answer to emerge from this ideation. Just look for something good and productive. And start building.

Do you think you can deal with ambiguity? How do you do it?

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