The Down-Side of Efficiency

I had two remarkably similar conversations last week with two organizations that could not be more different from each other. One was a large, global corporation, and the other was a small nonprofit, but they were both struggling with the same issue: not enough time.

Everywhere I go, it’s the same thing: we don’t have enough time. We don’t have enough time to run experiments or do beta tests. We don’t have enough time to share information with that other department. We don’t have enough time to focus on the needs of our employees. These organizations want to move the needle on things like agility, innovation, or transparency…but they don’t have time.

I get it, of course. I get overwhelmed and feel pressed for time as much as the next person. But there’s something bigger here: the machine mindset. It doesn’t matter if you’re a global conglomerate or a tiny nonprofit, if you are an organization today, it’s likely that your approach to management is rooted in the machine mindset. Maddie and I wrote about this years ago, in Humanize, yet here we are in 2018 and the core of most organizational approaches is still rooted in our engineering-focused past.

We run our organizations like machines, so we focus on efficiency and productivity. That means we run them lean. Large organization? You can’t scale and grow faster than your behemoth competitors unless you’re lean. Small nonprofit? You can’t get that grant money unless you can show that your overhead percentage is tiny. That’s lean.

But lean comes at a cost. It narrows our focus. It limits our options. It restricts us to what we already know. In short, it’s not human.

Humans need space. Humans need down time. Humans need play. At least they need those things if they want to grow and develop. We have research on this, folks. The same applies to human organizations. As we move into the future, I think we need to prepare ourselves from some significant restructuring of how things get done. Because if we insist on the level of lean we’re running today, we’ll never move the needle on things like innovation, agility, and transparency in the ways we want.

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