Is the belief in efficiency getting in our way?

In reading the book “Walk Out, Walk On: A Learning Journey Into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now“, I am reconsidering the idea of efficiency and how it might be a hindrance to our ultimate success in organizations and communities.Author Wheatley talks of an unreachable “optimal state” and how this makes efficiency elusive. She advocates instead for a resiliency model. Such a system, “…has the capacity to rebound from disturbance…by increasing its diversity and redundancy, by forgoing growth and speed in favor of sustainability, and by engaging in a wide range of small local actions that connect to one another.” A resilient agricultural system might be local so as not to rely on a single element like supply of oil to transport food grown far away, or it might practice a labor intensive form of agriculture like permaculture. A resilient community might use local herbs to treat disease rather than relying on access to pharmaceutical drugs that are made far away and are in short supply.

Similarly, a resilient business might embrace the “local” concept by cultivating leadership and a diverse skill set in its employees–and spread out decision making authority beyond its executive team so as not to rely on the “oil” to spread leadership from the executives to the other workers. It would consider the strengths of its workforce, and consider paths toward its purpose utilizing these skill sets. It would empower its employees to find ways to get their work done without relying too heavily on organizational policy or other departments.

In contrast, efficiency models try to get the most done in the least amount of time. Wheatley says, “The more you optimize elements of a complex system of humans and nature for some specific goal, the more you diminish that systems’ resilience. A drive for an efficient optimal state outcome has the effect of making the total system more vulnerable to shocks and disturbances.” An efficient organization tries to eliminate redundancy and streamline decision-making and processes through specialization and hierarchy.

In order for an organization to value resiliency over efficiency, there would need to be a shared understanding about the illusion of the optimal state. The optimal state does not exist!

When I am planning a project, I try to build in extra cushions of time to make up for the unexpected setbacks that are, in fact, to be expected. As the author said, “Life always bursts through the door–why not expect it?” When I try to explain my cushions in the project plan to someone who wants to or needs to believe in the idea of the optimal state, they want to decrease these cushions and get the project done faster and for less money. If I remove the cushions, then the project ultimately comes in behind schedule. The response then is that we need to work harder, do more, and next time make sure that nothing unexpected happens or gets in the way. Inevitably, something happens again the next time–someone on our team gets sick, our outside vendor is behind schedule, or a computer breaks, and the cycle continues. This leads to discouragement when people work harder and harder, but still see that they are not meeting the goals.

The optimal state illusion is embedded in our political systems, our agriculture systems, and our organizations. Is the drive toward greater and greater efficiency getting in the way in our organizations? How do we break out of this cycle and come to a shared understanding about the illusion of an optimal state so we can work towards resiliency?

Reflection in Action

Recently I had the experience of co-facilitating a group along with a very experienced and skillful facilitator. I found that my response time was lagging, and that she would often jump in to the group discussion before I had formulated my question or comment to the group. I talked to her about the 30-second-delay I was experiencing, and she said that she used to have a 5-minute delay! She had attained her swiftness in response to the group by what Donald Schoen calls “Reflection-in-Action”. In his book, The Reflective Pracitioner (1983) Schoen describes how through a feedback loop of experience, learning and practice, we can continually improve our work and become a ‘reflective practitioner’. The skilled facilitator was improvising, much like Schoen wrote about conversation, “In a good conversation–in some respects predictable and in others not–participants pick up and develop themes of talk, each spinning out variations on her repertoire of things to say. Conversation is collective verbal improvisation. At times it falls into conventional routines…which develop according to a pace and rhythm of interaction that the participants seem, without conscious deliberation, to work out in common within the framework of an evolving division of labor. At other times there may be surprises, unexpected turns of phrase or directions of development to which participants invent on-the-spot responses.”

Is turnover rate an acceptable measure of sustainability?

In my workplace, an employee brought up the question of whether our organization is sustainable, referring to our turnover rate. In an organization of 12 full time equivalents, we have had a turnover rate of about 30% in the past year.

I think the turnover rate by itself is not an accurate measure of sustainability. Often people leave because of a lack of fit between the employee and the role, or a conflict between the individual’s and the organization’s values. When these people leave, they are then freed to go on to do other things that they might enjoy more or for which they are better suited. Life circumstances sometimes cause people to change jobs or careers. When the employees leave under favorable circumstances, they spread knowledge about the organization’s mission to the world–which is especially relevant to the nonprofit sector. Turnover creates space for new employees who are fresh and interested to join the group.

To me, the organization is sustainable as long as the turnover is not so great that the group has trouble orienting new members and as long as organizational knowledge is not lost. Turnover of entry level employees and employees who have not been with the organization for a long time are less impactful than turnover amongst long-term employees who have considerable relevant knowledge or amongst leaders in the organization.

Sustainability could be advanced in organizations through valuing long-term relationships, documenting and otherwise capturing organizational knowledge, and improving hiring practices to screen for culture and role fit. Asking managers to look for lack of fit early on and take employees out of misfitting roles in the early weeks or months of employment rather than later would lead to less negative impact on the employee and the organization by reducing the duration of time when there is a lack of fit.