A Horror Story: Efficiency is Killing Productivity
Are you working in product development? Creative work? Research? Or any other domain where brains are the main asset? YES?
Then this story is for you! It's called:
"Efficiency in organisations has become counterproductive!"
Take the holy grail of efficiency: Clarity - Measurements - Accountability, it makes human efforts derail! And yes, I've been tricked into it myself.
My work while being tricked and still today is about solving unknown, new problems every day, flexible and collaboratively. And as many others I lost my capacity to collaborate in the name of efficiency. I was being measured on "productivity" or "efficiency" in terms of how busy I was. 100% of my time was spent working on tasks given to me, participating in boring, useless meetings and no time to really know who my teammates were, except for the yearly teambuilding. I felt frustrated about that even though I was considered a top-performer, the best of the best in my domain. I would even be more frustrated today as I learned that there is no use for organisations to win the war on talent if that's the only thing they are looking at.
How we work together is essential! How we contribute to the effort of others! I discovered that with true collaboration you can do "More with LeSS", hence the "co" in Co-Learning.
So let’s see what happens with collaboration when the holy grail of efficiency kicks in? When clarity - measurements - accountability take an appearance.
Clarity: We need to clarify roles, clarify processes and put that onto paper, mental contracts. Imagine when a runner in a relay race team would say: let’s be clear - when does my role start & stop, do I need to run for 95m, 97m? If you then say 97, they’ll drop the baton at exactly 97m no matter if the other runner is there or not. How do we know when the optimal moment is there to pass the baton? We can’t, but in our organisations we pretend we can. Believe me, I tried and failed many times as well but at least I learned from it.
Accountability: We need to put accountability in somebody's hands. Who is accountable for this “crucial” process? Who is accountable to deliver the contract? Going back to the relay race, since passing the baton is so important we must have somebody accountable for it! So between each runner we would have a new dedicated role accountable for passing the baton between runner A and runner B, and we would need at least 2 of those. Would we win the race? No idea but we would definitely have a clear process with clear roles, clear lines, contracts to live by... and as such know who to blame.
In the name of efficiency, organisations are paying more attention to who to blame in case they fail than creating the conditions to succeed.
Taking part in acquisitions, I can also state that the more complex the organisation becomes... in the name of clarity/measurement/accountability... we multiply structures, processes, systems, creating mental contracts between different actors in that same system… This is triggering a counterproductive generation of interfaces, coordinators, middle management, hand-offs… all contracted - prescribed in detail in the name of clarity. A game where everybody looses!
According to our experience we see that the total amount of people in organisations are wasting between 40 and 80% of their time in such a setup. And I was no exception to that. I was working harder and harder, longer and longer on less value adding activities.
How is it for you? Sounds familiar? Are you working in such an organisation?
Efficiency is what is killing productivity! Organisations are wasting human intelligence by setting up this kind of mental contracts, layers and interfaces!
Let us quickly explore one of the most simple examples of a less mental, more physical contract that is there for clarity, measurements and accountability all at the same time. Let’s explore the contracting game where party A needs something from party B and party A is paying for it.
A will always go MORE MORE MORE, B will always go LESS LESS LESS. So the Game is on MORE MORE MORE - LESS LESS LESS - MORE MORE MORE… And then the Game comes to a climax, aaaaahhhhhhhh…. A paper is created with all details representing the so called consensus, describing what will happen by what time and for which kind of money. A plan, a contract in name of clarity, measurements and accountability (Holy grail of efficiency).
But when is this contract used in reality? When do people pop up the document? It’s not during execution when BA’s are re-analysing needs and inventing extra’s at the same time, techies are building the needs according specifications - or at least we wish they do. So when is it used? When things go wrong! Let me repeat it: when things go wrong!
And why? To blame the other party as much as possible. Considering this behaviour we could conclude that a contract, mental or not, is created and signed when both parties maximized their opportunity to shift blame to the other party.
Let me repeat again: a contract is formalized when all parties maximized their opportunity to shift blame to the other party.
So why do we spend so much time on them? In the name of efficiency! We need clarity, measurements and somebody accountable. But how efficient is it really?
With the contract at hand, in our example one where party B will deliver something to party A, a Project Manager says the magic word he learned during his PMI course. Yes, PMI stands for Project Magician Institute and like any good magician they need a magic word like Hocus Pocus, so what magic word is used here? We commit! Magicians also use magic symbols to support the illusion they are setting up. Similar as our PM: squares to define milestones, lines for time, lanes for resources and many more. Creating an illusion of control. Along the play of a magical piece tension is building up till the rabbit pops out the hat, also here PM is building up tension. Green traffic lights are flashing by for a long time and suddenly, very suddenly the rabbit pops up: a red traffic light. Generally this happens when there is at the beginning of the originally planned 2 month testing period only 2 weeks left.
And now the real magic starts! During those last weeks the impossible happens and the contract gets delivered.
In my past as a developer the PM came to my desk, telling he was under pressure and that we have to do everything possible to make the contract. Orders of the CEO. No matter what it takes! As a nice person myself I felt compassionate and reached out to my Secret Toolbox. Yes, I too had secret, magical stuff! I forgot about Clean Code, hacked things together with the idea to clean it up afterwards. Let’s trust on the code written and forget about TDD, I’ll write the tests after the delivery. Let’s skip daily standups for now, let’s skip retrospectives, demos and any other opportunity to collaborate and/or reflect on what we do.
Let’s get busy, I’ll catch up and cleanup after the delivery.
Do you also find secret tools, shortcuts to do your job when being pressured to deliver? Yes? You do this out of good intent! Same as for myself, but as soon as stuff got delivered another PM was standing at my desk and the scenario repeated itself. And again, and again… Until I totally forgot to catch up or cleanup at all.
As such I was building up debt in 2 aspects: Technical, for which I felt bad, Organisational which was less visible. And this debt has to be paid back of course. Technical debt end result: NG or let’s start the Next Generation. Organisational debt end result: over a longer period or CEO gets fired. If lucky the new CEO understands that focus on efficiency, clarity, measurements and accountability is bullocks.
I was lucky, and not because the CEO got fired, I realised that I was focusing on the wrong things and took my responsibility to change my own, personal situation. How did I do this? First of all, I realised that collaboration between individual parties is key to create something truly successful. In order to facilitate this we applied a true inspect & adapt mode of working where all parties are equally involved and collaboration was able to flourish. No accountability on single components but collective code ownership. Key elements in what today is known as LeSS.
Setting up an environment with MORE collaboration that requires LESS hand-offs, layers and reporting. It allows all involved to learn from each other, it maximizes the opportunity to apply new insights, it allows to become innovative and break the (sometimes internal) rules competition lives by.
To be honest, this story is not a unique thing! It is one of the many case studies published on Less.Works from which I am willing to conclude that this kind of “flipping the system” is working in almost all domains: healthcare, banking, telecom, insurance, security… But be aware! I’ve been helping companies in different domains flipping their systems to have More with LeSS and have to admit that it’s a true challenge, tough and hard work, requiring courage, and as such maybe not suitable for every organisation.
Anyhow. Want to be become more successful and at the same time have more meaning and satisfaction at work?
Forget about effectiveness. Do not create those productivity killing mental contracts. Avoid clarity, go for fuzziness and overlaps! Avoid the urge to define accountability, and go for an inspect & adapt approach. Remove RACI’s, remove layers, remove hand-offs and keep room for learning and exploration.
Become the innovative and learning organisation where individuals flourish, teams find meaning and grow beyond the normal.
Take a moment to answer these questions for yourself… What are you focusing on? Could it be a kind of contracting game? Clarity? Defining accountability?
What are you putting in place in the name of efficiency? Do you make it individually useful for people to collaborate? Or do you, as many others, mainly focus on clarity, measurements and accountability?
The answer is an answer YOU have to give, I cannot do that for you. One thing is certain: It is your answer, it is the answer that will define the future of your organisation.
If the answer is “I already know that”, then you most probably have changed the organisation you work in.
If the answer is “that won’t work for me”, then you're doomed in a world full of local optimisation and effeciency.
If the answer is “we are willing to let go…..”, then you have a chance.
If the answer is “we want, but only part of it is possible…”, then we can help :)