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?

Saying no is the new yes

Today I want to share a great article by Tony Schwarz at The Energy Project on productivity and prioritization. On March 18, I took Tony’s challenge to take back my lunch for the rest of the month. I got so much out of it that I am not continuing well into April with my full hour long lunch breaks daily, usually offsite in a beautiful location such as the beach, the mountains, or the park. (I love living and working in Santa Cruz since each of these is only 5 minutes away.) I’ve been coming back from lunch full of energy and thinking clearly. People have remarked that I seem relaxed amidst the chaos.

In this article on saying no, Tony urges us to break the vicious cycle of the “madness loop” of back-to-back meetings, endless email, and putting out fires and instead take time to pause, reflect and prioritize.

Tony says, “We mistake activity for productivity, more for better, and we ask ourselves “What’s next?” far more often than we do “Why this?” He also quotes Ghandi: “A ‘no’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.”

I’ll let you read the rest of the article at the Harvard Business Review Blog. Thank you to The Management Center for sharing this in your newsletter this week!

Now it’s time for me to take my lunch break.

Taking back my lunch

With all that there is to be done at work, I have been guilty a number of times of working straight through my lunch break, checking email in the morning during breakfast, or bringing home reports to read in the evening.

At times, I’ve even felt guilty for not doing these things, especially when I look around and seeing my boss and people who I respect working 12-, 16- and occasionally even 24-hour days. Don’t get me wrong, I do get a rush from these marathon sessions. There’s something exciting about being awake in a flourescent-lit room blasting music and working on deadline with a collaborator while the rest of my time zone sleeps. And I do understand that at certain times, a tight deadline can make the difference between impressing the donor or customer or having them pass you by.

Despite the feel-good effects of speed-working, more and more studies are showing that working long hours without periods of rest and renewal leads to a drastic decrease in productivity.

“Speed is the enemy of reflection, understanding and intentionality,” writes Tony Schwartz at the Energy Project, who is my new favorite writer on applying mindfulness techniques at work.

That is why I am joining the “Take Back Your Lunch” movement. For the rest of the month of March, I am going to resist the temptation to eat lunch at my desk or during a meeting and instead use that hour for a relaxed meal and a period of renewal and rest.

Here are some more tips for managers and the managed from Tony on how to increase productivity and get more by doing less.

How to Say “No” at Work

We had a great conversation at our offsite last Tuesday on the importance of being able to take on a reasonable workload, avoid overwork and burnout, and to know when to say “no”. There are both more and less effective ways of saying “no”, especially to your manager. It is generally not a good idea to “Just say no,” but instead to let your manager know your priorities and what the sacrifice would be if you did this new project instead. 
Here is a resource from Forbes (in pictures!) on how to say “no” at work that explains this technique and others. 

You can do ANYTHING for 30 days

Today I bring you two pieces I’ve come across lately on the effects of temporary change. How many things in your life or in your job have you been wanting to try, to do, or to become?

Are you interested in the latest management technique but wary of its “fad-ness”?

Peter Bregman, strategic advisor to CEOs, writes in the Harvard Business Review:

“Process re-engineering? The one-minute manager? Management by objective? Guerrilla marketing? It’s easy to dismiss them all, and so many other ideas, as fads. Here one day, gone the next. Better not to get sucked into them in the first place. But, instead, consider how each “fad” might have been useful, perhaps in your organization, for a period of time. And that might be just fine. For something to be a great success, it doesn’t have to last forever. The challenge? Not thinking of any solution as a cure-all in the first place. Because when we think of something as a panacea, we ignore its weaknesses and negative side effects. And then, eventually, when the inevitable flaws are exposed, we lose faith in the solution completely. We discount any value it provided. Because it never lived up to our expectations, it never fully worked.”

Or maybe you have always wanted to bike to work, to go vegan, or to write a novel.

Matt Cutts, Google engineer and TED talker, urges us to: Why not try something new just for the next 30 days? 

What are you going to try for the next 30 days?


One skills that has helped me a lot in my career is the ability to apologize. Whenever someone brings a problem to my attention, I use this 5-part apology formula.

1) Thank the person for bringing the issue to your attention.

2) Apologize for the mistake.

3) Let them know briefly how it happened.

4) Tell them what you are doing differently to make sure it does not happen again. This is a good time to state your commitment to quality or excellence if it is an error that is hard to prevent or if you are not sure how to phrase what you are going to do to prevent it from happening again. Depending on the degree of the error, you may want to offer them something at this point such as free shipping on their next order of merchandise.

5) Thank them again for calling this issue to your attention.

Here is an excellent example of an apology letter.

Staying on top of email

This year I made a pledge to myself and my staff (since most of my email comes from them) that I will answer all emails within 24 hours. The trick for me has been ignore my flood of email during the day. I average about 50-80 incoming emails each day. During the last hour of my work day, I take my account offline (so I don’t get replies back as I’m replying) and answer them all, then send them out in one batch. The tradeoff is that people need to call me or IM me if they need a response right away, but this was already the case since some days I would not check my email until the afternoon anyway. (My day is usually full of back-to-back meetings with staff.) Resisting the temptation to check email during the day has also allowed me to be more present at meetings, since I’m not trying to sneak in an email or two between each person. I learned this trick from watching my property manager when I was in the process of securing a rental apartment from him. Whenever I emailed him, I would always get a response between 4-5PM.

This blog post by Michael Hyatt talks about this technique and others.