The role of efficiency in an uncertain world

Many organisations are becoming more and more brittle by increasing the number of policies, procedures, protocols, precedents and reliance on technology. Organisations are determined to be more efficient. They are determined to achieve an end goal with little to no waste, effort, or energy, using resources in the best possible way. Orgnisations focused on efficiency strive to ensure all processes are optimised and there is no unnecessary use of resources.

The more certain we try and make things the more likely we are to become a victim to the unpredictable. This is in part because we don’t practice the ability to imagine, experiment or explore. We fool ourselves into the belief that we are too busy and need to be more efficient.  

Efficiency can be a trap   

Efficiency is all about planning and systemising. Something we are obsessed with. Efficiency works exceptionally well when you can accurately forecast and predict exactly what will happen and what you will need. But when the unexpected comes along, efficiency is no longer going to be effective and it can wreak havoc on a system that is based on particular forecasting algorithms designed with past patterns in mind.

This has become a big issue for companies looking to gain greater efficiencies. Consider those businesses who can implement algorithms around their business based on buying behavior patterns. When unexpected issues arise, the system can become it’s own worst enemy because it is incapable of allowing for variations. 

The unexpected is all around us

In her stunning TED Talk, Margaret Heffernan reflects on this issue.

“The unexpected is becoming the norm” Heffernan states. “Over the past twenty to thirty years, much of the world has gone from being ‘complicated’ to ‘complex’, meaning there are patterns, but they don’t repeat themselves regularly and it means that very small changes can make a disproportionate impact and it means that expertise won’t always suffice because the system just keeps changing too fast”. 

Because of the complexities of the world, the unexpected is all around us. We know there will be a stock market crash, but we don’t know exactly when. Companies are blind-sided when plastic straws, plastic cutlery and bottled water go from standard staples to rejected stock, seemingly overnight. No forecasting can predict such issues. In a complex world, unimagined challenges crop up all the time. 

In an environment capable of such rapid changes that defy forecasting to a large extent, efficiency actually works against our business, by undermining our ability to think on our feet, our capacity to adapt and respond. 

If efficiency is no longer our guiding principle, what is? 

Heffernan offers an insightful approach for businesses, looking to embrace this new normal. “In the past we thought about ‘just in time management’, now we have to start thinking about ‘just in case management’. 

Businesses need to prepare for events that are generally certain, but specifically remain ambiguous.

The perfect example of this principle is the topic of pandemics. We know that there will be another one, but we can’t plan for exactly when and what it will be and how it will play out. We can, however, prepare. Pharmeceutical companies can prepare multiple vaccines for multiple possible diseases which may or may not ever eventuate; the approach being, of course, on preparing for multiple possible scenarios so that they are not blind-sided if and when another pandemic hits. This approach is the polar opposite of efficiency. 

Many resources used towards vaccine development that may never need to be used. It can be concluded that much, or most of the time, money and human labour used will be wasted. Totally inefficient. However, the approach is necessary and it is robust, because it ensures they have an outcome waiting and ready to deploy for multiple potential outbreaks. 

The more we let machines think for us the less we can think for ourselves.

We are becoming increasingly dependent on technology. Our heavy resilience on technology however, renders us less skilled and less prepared for the unknown. We are more vulnerable to the uncertainty of the future.  As Heffernen states; “Every time we use technology to nudge us through a decision or a choice or interpret how someone is feeling or to guide us through a conversation, we outsource to a machine what we could do ourselves and it’s an expensive trade-off”. 

In her TED talk, Hefferan delivers a mind-blowing conclusion; “What these technologies attempt to do is force-fit a standarised model of 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”. 

Imagination, exploration and experimentation is more important than efficiency. 

The corporate world in large is still focused on efficiency as a strategic priority. But we need to think bigger. We need to be less efficient and more prepared for multiple possibilities. The attributes we need to foster and develop in our employees and ourselves are those of creative thinking, imagination, experimentation, compassion and connection. These are the human qualities that will give us the resilience and bravery to be prepared for and meet the unexpected head on. 

I can help your leadership team become more connected to embrace the qualities needed for an uncertain future. If your leadership team could do with my help, please get in touch today, I’d love to hear from you.  

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