Adaptability is more important than efficiency

Productivity and efficiency are goals of unquestionable value – But in the end too much efficiency leads to an unthinking and disengaged workforce that is unable to respond and adapt when the unpredictable happens. 

In today’s fast-paced, competitive world, companies strive for efficiency as a way to maximise productivity, minimise costs, and increase profitability. 

An overly efficient workplace can hinder the ability of employees to respond and adapt to changes in the market. When employees are constantly focused on completing tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible, they may miss out on opportunities to be creative, innovative, and think critically. There simply isn’t the structure for these ideas to be shared, received well and implemented as the focus is simply to get the job done. 

This can lead to a lack of adaptability and flexibility, as employees may not have the skills or mindset necessary to respond to changing market conditions or unexpected challenges. This can ultimately harm the company’s ability to stay competitive and agile in a constantly changing business environment.

The pursuit of efficiency can sometimes have unintended consequences. In her talk ‘The human skills we need in an unpredictable world’, Margaret Heffernan relates the example to a large UK supermarket chain who recently embraced technology and installed an algorithmic task allocator where employees could clock in, have a task assigned and come back, scan their details and be assigned more, with the aim to be more efficient. However, the task allocator could not deal with the unpredictable; when a carton of eggs were dropped, when the local high school buys up all the ice blocks on a hot day for all their students etc.. Efficiency only works well when you can predict exactly what you are going to need. 

But the ability to deal with the unexpected is becoming the norm. Much of the world has moved from being complicated, to being complex. Which means there are patterns, but they don’t repeat themselves regularly and small changes can make a disproportionate impact and the system keeps changing too fast for the technology to keep up. These kinds of environments defy forecasting. In such a situation, as Heffernan puts it “efficiency won’t just not help us, it specifically undermines and erodes our capacity to adapt and respond”. 

We can’t plan, but we can prepare.  

Companies that provide more options for different outcomes need business models that focus on building trust and relationships on a ‘just in case’ basis. This is not necessarily efficient, as the outcomes may never arise that need such relationships, but it is robust. This business model is robust as it protects the company against surprises. The investment in building strong relationships means it can pivot and adapt as needed. 

Look at how countries work with trade partners. Most know they need to develop and maintain good relationships with all trade partners because they know there is uncertainty around which trade partners may suddenly become unstable. The focus of developing alliances now, knowing that some of these may never be needed is in itself, inefficient. But it prepares us for the possibility of using them if needed. 

In an unpredictable world, Heffernan calls on these qualities in the workplace for companies to remain resilient, strong and prepared for the unexpected: imagination, trust, strong relationships, experimentation and creativity. These attributes give capacity for invention and adaptability, which are arguably much more important than efficiency. 

Focusing on efficiency results in a fall in engagement 

When employees are pushed to work at maximum efficiency levels, it is hardly surprising for them to feel overwhelmed, stressed, and burnt out. This can lead to a lack of motivation and engagement, as well as a sense of detachment from the company’s mission and values. Employees may start to feel like they are simply cogs in a machine, or hamsters on a wheel. They don’t feel valued. Each individual may be bursting with ideas that go unrecognised because the process and focus on efficiency and productivity at all costs, does not support their creativity to flourish. In such cultures, morale and job satisfaction can wane over time, leading to increased turnover rates and decreased productivity.

While efficiency is certainly an important goal for any organisation, it is crucial to strike a balance between efficiency, being prepared and building engagement. In the short term, it’s not efficient to invest time into building relationships amongst employees, building trust and taking time away from being productive to do just this. But it is crucial when business need to pivot and communicate ways to adapt when the unexpected hits.

Companies should strive to create a workplace culture that values trust and strong relationships as well as creating an environment where employees are invested in the organisation and empowered to contribute their unique talents and perspectives. This can help foster a more adaptable, flexible, and responsive workforce that is better equipped to navigate the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly changing business landscape.

How is your company prepared for the unexpected? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Could your leadership team benefit from one of my tailored workshops? Please get in touch today. I’d love to help.

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