The efficiency mindset – appealing, but treacherous

Much of the public debate about innovation is centred on the corporate world, where share-holder value still rules supreme, and where innovation is the key avenue to keep the competitive advantage required to excel in the market. In this environment, efficiency is the prime driver: looking for tangible pay-off in the near future and minimizing the investment of time and resources. Thus, efficiency is engrained in our corporate cultures.

But we do not only pursue efficiency through innovation (i.e., we innovate to increase efficiency). We also apply efficiency as a guiding principle for the innovation process itself (i.e., we seek to innovate efficiently). That’s understandable of course, especially if you are committed to share-holder value. However, that’s a very narrow, even an incomplete perspective.

If you broadly view innovation as developing and implementing novel problem-solutions, then you see how the focus on efficiency addresses only on the tail-end of innovation: it asks us to implement solutions quickly. The result is too much implementation with too little development; too much emphasis on solutions with too little concern for the underlying problems; too much doing with too little thinking. And that has some unintended, hideous side-effects and long-term implications.

Here’s how the efficiency mindset works and how it can misguide our efforts.

Focus here!

We are attracted by simplicity: simple stories appear easily understandable, we are lazy anyway and don’t want to think too much. This psychological precondition turned out advantageous throughout our evolution, in particular in flight-or-fight situations. Hence our preference for simple solutions comes as no surprise. Even in science, you’ll find Occam’s Razor (or “the law of parsimony”), suggesting that of two competing hypotheses the simpler one should be selected. Not because a simpler hypothesis is automatically better, but because it makes fewer assumptions, hence it can be validated or falsified more easily. And note that Occam’s razor employs simplicity as a relative criterion to compare competing hypotheses: it does not make simplicity an absolute yardstick.

We over-simplify things if we make simplicity our principal guideline. Still, that is exactly what happens when we accept the first problem description we can find (ideally in one clearly labelled box) and then look for the best-fit solution that is within reach. That’s when we seek to match an available solution to the described problem, rather than really understanding the problem and then tailoring a solution. We escape the not-so-simple in-depth analysis of the problem by zooming in under the microscope until we’ve reduced the problem to something that seems easily solvable. But that is not necessarily the real problem that needs to be solved.

Granted, such an approach is quite resource-efficient. And often, it is even reasonably effective. Still you have to ask whether the implemented solution sufficiently addressed the initial, the underlying problem.

Act now!

We also prefer fast solutions, with a penchant for decisive action. Quickly implementing a solution makes us look and feel good instantaneously, regardless whether they solve the underlying problem in the long run. This preference for action again is natural; just consider the many negative connotations of not-taking-action: indecision, hesitation, procrastination, wavering, to name but a few. In this action-dominated view, doing is the only thing that matters, while thinking is seen as another term for wasteful idleness.

This focus on “now” together with the preference for “here” is the ideal recipe for quick-and-dirty solutions, for band-aids and fixes that will likely produce further challenges, yield additional problems. While we praise our own efficiency today, we innovate on borrowed time and borrowed resources: leaving it to somebody else someplace else to deal with the bigger picture later.

Think later?

The specific long-term implications of any concrete innovation cannot be known a priori, no matter how hard we try. But that doesn’t justify utterly ignoring any kind of future consideration. Instead, and at the very least, we must realise and acknowledge that the cumulative effect of many routine small-scale innovations over time is stifling. The bigger the organisation, the more likely you’ll experience this mindset: efficiency is the safe course to steer, anything else entails too much risk. Downright risk-aversion often is a by-product of the efficiency focus.

In the end, efficiency and resilience are natural enemies. All the quick fixes and band-aids, all the efficient, simple, and quickly implemented solutions build up over time. They aggregate and conspire against you, gradually eating up all flexibility, eventually destroying your organisation’s resilience. If you want to survive this slow poison, you’ll need to invest a little time and energy to think before you act.

Some suggestions …

When efficiency becomes a false god, when process efficiency is the only consideration, when only the short-term future is on the radar, when only monetary returns matter, when all effort is solely focused on the organisation’s direct benefit, then many essential facets of innovation are disregarded or even ignored. Taken to such extremes, the efficiency mindset promotes adventurous activity and busy-ness over careful reflection and thoughtfulness; favouring action while rejecting the inventive, creative, contemplative dimension of innovation.

To avoid these pitfalls, just ask yourself and check whether efficiency, simplicity, speed really are the priorities in solving the problem at hand. Do not jump to the nearest or easiest conclusion. Then think about your problem. How wide do you need to cast the net to grasp all relevant boundary conditions? Equally important: understand your solution constraints. How fast do we need to be? What are the available resources? And don’t try to squeeze your problem description into the mould of available resources!

All of this is easily said but difficult to achieve. Clearly, the efficiency mindset does not offer a one-size-fits-all approach for problem-solving. While it is appropriate for certain types of problems, it is short-sighted and positively dangerous for others. Well then, wouldn’t it be good to have a map that shows you which type of situation you are in? Some orientation that could guide you to the most appropriate problem-solving approach? That’ll be the topic of my next post.


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