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Why efficiency is an outmoded business model

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With the invention of technology came efficiency. Historically this played out first in the invention of agricultural tools and machinery, then in industrial factories, later in the digital age and now in the increasing age of automation. As Bill Gates said, “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency.” This can have many upsides for a company, potentially saving time, costs and other resources. But within our culture’s ever-growing appetite for efficiency, it can actually stunt growth in other, more fundamental ways.

 In an increasingly online world, everything is closer and yet more remote than ever before. Access can be instant, contact can cross twelve time-zones in a fraction of a second, yet the capacity for digital connection can leave us parched for present human connection. And beyond technology, our Western drive for efficiency can end up replacing relational leadership. Efficiency can end up making casualties of our relationships, our creativity and even the planet. When we prioritise efficiency, we bring the very success of our organisation into question.

 Efficiency is not robust

 “In the future, innovation cannot advance in a positive direction unless it’s grounded in genuine and continued efforts to lift up all of humanity.”Marc Benioff and Monica Langley, Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change.

 Dr Gail Bradbook, founder of Extinction Rebellion, says “Climate change is the most obvious problem with a system that’s no longer working for us.” It’s a system, in short, that prioritises efficiency. And since long-term consequences for the planet don’t factor into efficiency, environmentalism becomes an inconvenient topic that slows the gears of our perfectly oiled operations.

 Efficiency doesn’t factor in long term consequences. But it also doesn’t factor in potential short-term consequences. At the 2019 TED Summit, Margaret Heffernan, a former CEO of five businesses, identified that we used to think in terms of “just-in-time” management. But we now need to think in terms of “just-in-case.” To transition from an efficient system to a robust one.

 A system built on efficiency demands a measurable future. Something that makes the numbers look good. But a measurable future is not one that we have, as Ron Heifetz said, “There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.”

 But because leaders are often expected to apply efficiency to an organisation, Heffernan says we can end up trying to “force-fit a predictable reality onto a world that is infinitely surprising. What gets left out? Anything that can’t be measured, which is just about everything that counts.”

 Trust is the highest value

 “If trust isn’t your highest value… the employees will walk out. Customers will walk out, investors will walk out, leaders will walk out, and you’re seeing that more every day.” Marc Benioff, in an interview with Fortune

At its heart, efficiency prioritises shareholders over other stakeholders. Shareholders appreciate numbers, data and a real or imagined predictability. But clients and team members care about them a good deal less. Their attachment to a company is built upon relationship and cannot be sustained unless trust is a core value of the organisation.

 Efficiency does not value trust. And it cannot respond with agility to important social issues. Addressing the growing public distrust of tech companies, Marc Benioff argues that “Companies, and the people who lead them, can no longer afford to separate business objectives from the social issues surrounding them.”

 Margaret Heffernan drives home this perspective, “It’s why companies are blindsided when plastic straws and bags and bottled water go from staples to rejects overnight, and baffled when a change in social mores turns stars into pariahs and colleagues into outcasts…” she concludes, “efficiency won’t just not help us, it specifically undermines and erodes our capacity to adapt and respond.”

Relational leadership is a lifeline

 “It wasn’t data or technology,” they said. “It was my friends and my colleagues who kept me going.” – Margaret Heffernan, TEDSummit 2019

 Heffernan describes how the Saracans’ rugby coach chose an inefficient but far more effective mode of coaching. In and out of match season, the players were taken on ski trips and to visit social projects in Chicago. In terms of making efficient use of time and budget, it was a poor idea, yet Heffernan says, “Players came back with renewed bonds of loyalty and solidarity… they manifested what the manager calls ‘poise’. Unflinching and unwavering dedication to each other. Their opponents are in awe of this, but still too enthralled to efficiency to try it.”

 When we hit the inevitable unexpected breakdown-inducing moments in life, it is our friendships and relationships that will keep us going. It is our connection to one another that will keep us connected to what really matters. Efficiency is a means to an end. It was never meant to cost us trust, or the future, or the planet itself. We need to demote it if we are to respond to the climate crisis or social issues, or relational issues in our own teams. 

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