Tag Archives: Efficiency

The End of Leadership Development: From the Factory to the Greenhouse

22 Jan

I have a radical hypothesis. Is it possible that the real reason why leadership development programs fail is because we don’t actually need them? Is it possible that we’ve inserted ourselves into a process that we have no business in? Traditional experts would like you to believe that there are all sorts of tactical reasons why our efforts to create better leaders fails (see here), but I’m starting to suspect that was once a small problem got a lot worse when the leadership development industry got created. Let me explain.

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Organizational boundaries are like glass. Employees can see right through them. They will stay only if its a good place to grow.

The best metaphor I can come up with for the future workplace is a greenhouse. Our current management model comes from the industrial revolution in which managers focused on improving the factory’s efficiency. Even today, many companies still focus on efficiency and logistics. They measure, measure, measure, and write reports and we analyze and predict. People are getting really excited about Big Data in HR and the truth is….it’s all bullshit (well it may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient). OK, maybe it’s not ALL bullshit, but it’s mostly bullshit. It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Sure that chair might be out of place and sure we might be about to measure the exact layout of the deck and the size of the chairs and come up with an optimum layout, but we would be missing the big problem…our ship is sinking.

The big problem for us is simply that human beings (and even more so social systems) are inherently chaotic and non-linear. Therefore, we simply cannot accurately predict or control how they will behave. No doubt you’ve heard, “a butterfly flaps its wings in New York and there is a hurricane in Japan,” or some variation. The point is simply that we shouldn’t blame the butterfly for the hurricane. In fact, there would be absolutely no way of ever making that connection empirically (see Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, 2006). And yet, people seem to have a real problem with acknowledging this in our work (known in philosophy as the problem of induction). Now, on a psychological level, we are all prone to make these inductive errors in judgment, but for precisely this reason we should be very careful about assuming the precision of our models. What does all of this mean for our work? Well, a few things.

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We can do lots of things, but we can’t make a plant grow. Only the right conditions and time can do that.

We don’t MAKE the plants grow. We simply set the conditions for them to grow and hopefully they grow. As Woody Allen said, “’Only God can make a tree,’ probably because it’s so hard to figure out how to get the bark on.” People are organic. Social systems are chaotic. Why in the world would we perpetuate the myth that we have any control over the learning or leadership process? It happens or it doesn’t happen, but we don’t micromanage it. All we can do is set the conditions for it to happen. We already know that most learning is informal and yet we keep pretending as if it wasn’t. Or if our little bit of formal learning (maybe 10%?) is actually really, really, really important. Managers, HR professionals, and learning “experts,” have been trying to interject themselves into the organic process because they want to get credit. If more people thought about this, then we could tackle the whole notion of corporate training and development in a completely new and more effective (and empowering way).

Think in terms of effectiveness not efficiency. I have come to hate the word “efficiency.” I used to think that effectiveness came first (you got something done) and then you worked on being efficient (you got the same thing done with less resources). It seems that most people still think this way (or at least the good ones, the bad ones don’t even realize the difference or the necessary sequence). The problem is that reality doesn’t work like that. At least not outside of highly structured mechanical systems (efficiency is important when you are talking about engineering problems, but organic systems are so focused on survival that they don’t have much time left over for discussions about efficiency). So, given this, I’d like to ban the word from our vocabulary. Certainly there is a lot of talk from the innovation and start-up community about “lean” approaches. I actually love these approaches, but by how I define the terms, they are actually focused on effectiveness not efficiency. In the real world, if you are playing the game to win, you never actually get a chance to move past effectiveness; the rules and the structures of social systems are never static or consistent.

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Individuals want exactly what they want. Can’t provide that kind of learning customization? We know. Instead focus on what you can provide.

There is a move towards extreme personalization. I’ve been noticing this trend for years, but this really jumped out at me when I was doing my mobile leadership development research. As organizations integrate more and more information and more and more users they risk becoming more and more depersonalized. If the employees are now in the driver seat, then it isn’t enough to say, “Hey 90% of employees liked this,” because the other 10% are going to feel left out. This means that we need to focus more on building conditions that allow a variety of different individuals to flourish. One of the biggest problems with competencies is that they aren’t personalized. We err on the side of the organization rather than the employee. We need to create learning platforms that allow for the greatest personalization not the greatest “efficiency” (which I shall henceforth call, “the E word”). The greenhouse will allow the greatest number of employee to flourish. They will still need pruning and some won’t make it, but that’s the whole point. We’ll have more energy to focus on the gardening and less on trying to make the plants grow (which only the Universe can do). This also has big implications for technology, but I won’t get into that here.

The problem of induction can be moderated by approaching learning and leadership from the greenhouse, not the factory. I’m seeing more and more talk about Big Data in HR and I think this is a good example of where I think we are going wrong. Fundamentally, we can’t predict or control people, but that doesn’t mean that we should double-down on the “mechanical, linear, conventional, positivist, quantification, measurement-obsessed” approach. I think we need to realize that the solution requires a new type of thinking (other than the one that got us into this mess). A type of thinking that not only recognizes that we don’t know, but that we CAN’T know.

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Big data is fascinating, but Moneyball approaches don’t apply to non-game systems. Even if they did, it’s not like baseball got rid of all their scouts.

Our models are always going to be hilariously inaccurate and yet we keep making predictions about hiring and performance (and almost everything in politics, finance, etc.) and we keep being wrong. I don’t think the solution is to keep coming up with new ways of predicting, but to take a sober look at our deep (and faulty) epistemological assumptions and move forward from there. We can make the situation better, but not by furthering the illusion that we have control (we don’t want that kind of responsibility anyway). This belief in turn actually makes us and our clients more vulnerable. In our lust for efficiency we seek out and destroy the types of redundancy and chaos that all organic systems need to survive and grow. The “Moneyball” approach might help with some small issues, but baseball still finds itself in the same situation it did before (Sabermetrics introduced a new tool, but didn’t solve the real problem). So, we can look at Big Data in HR and I’m sure we will learn some things. Awesome. There is no doubt that these analytics will become new standards, but while they may be necessary, they are not sufficient. Like the deckchairs, analytics isn’t going to solve the real problem. When we recognize that we can’t predict, we actually liberate ourselves. We have more energy and focus on the things that we can control.

We don’t make the plants grow and we don’t make someone a better leader. All we can do is set the conditions. Just because something can be learned doesn’t mean that it can be taught. Individuals have to figure things out for themselves. We should focus on providing the requisite structure and tools…and then leave well enough alone. I’m not advocating for nihilism, but a radical shift in how we think about our role in the change process.

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The world’s medical experts used to believe in bloodletting.

Did you know that the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer, is iatrogenesis? What is this horrible word? It means the preventable harm caused by medical treatment. Think about that for a second. That means that we are killing roughly 220,000 people a year in our attempts to make them better. In fact, some medical historians have claimed that our medical treatments have only recently starting saving more people than they were killing. And it makes me wonder if this kind of arrogance comes from a discipline whose first principle is “do no harm,” then what kind of harm can we perpetuate in leadership development when we don’t even have that Hippocratic foundation? Is it possible that we are actually making leadership problems worse? Is it possible that the solution to our leadership challenges is actually to get rid of leadership development?

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Beware thy word “Efficiency”

20 Dec
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“He who chases two rabbits catches neither.” The same is true of efficiency and effectiveness.

I’m going to offer you one million dollars for you to pick one of these words….and only one…. to define your life or business; “effective” or “efficient.” Which one do you pick? The answer is that you should pick effective. Today’s article explains why.

Let me start with what efficiency really means. Being efficient means that you pay attention to the cost/benefit of your actions. It means that you increasingly spend less time, or less money, or less effort than you did to get the same result. It means that you calculate your return-on-investment and came out ahead. Above all else, it means that you make sure that you are not putting in more than you are getting out. Efficiency means that you value fairness, logic, and security. Efficiency means that you are smart and careful.

How is this different than being effective? Well, being effective means that you are willing to take risks. It means that you focus on getting the job done regardless of the cost. It means that come hell or high water (and if you’re trying to achieve anything of significance there will be high water) you are going to achieve what you set out to do. Effectiveness means that you execute even if you waste some resources along the way. Effectiveness means that you value success, learning, and adventure.

So, in a way these two drives complement each other. One is creative (effective) and one is corrective (efficiency). But there is a problem. The default setting of the universe is corrective. You don’t have to do anything to make that part of it happen. Just think about how hard it is to climb a mountain and how easy it is to fall off one. Or how hard it is to build a reputation and how easy it is to lose one. The world’s thermostat is naturally set at “cold, unforgiving, and unimpressed.” So in order to achieve anything you have to be absolutely, obsessively, retardedly committed to the goal (even then there are no guarantees) just to offset this natural downward pull.

Since we were children, we’ve been taught to focus on how much effort we put in. During group projects we were very aware who was putting in more effort (see “social loafing”) because we wanted it to be “fair.” When we got older we were taught to focus on return-on-investment and think in terms of cost/benefit ratios. I’m here to tell you that if you really want to achieve an amazing result, then you need to forget about all that bullshit.

Most people think that efficiency is a good thing and there are certain conditions when it’s appropriate (you’re running a large project or organization). But thinking in terms of how you manage your life, there is far more downside than upside.

Why does focusing on efficiency suck so hard? Well, because when we set out to achieve some awesome goal, we start by focusing on the result. We start by trying to be effective. Then, because results are slow to appear, we slowly start second-guessing their actions. Instead of asking, “is this moving me toward my goal?” we start asking, “is this particular action the BEST use of my time?” “Should I make some cold calls or should I do some more marketing?” “Should I go for a run or lift weights?” Eventually, we become so exhausted with trying to maximize our choices that we forget that the ultimate purpose wasn’t to “spend their time wisely” but to actually accomplish a goal.

This phenomena is so common I call it, “the effectiveness to efficiency flip.” It’s just another one of Resistance’s favorite tricks (read The Power of Resistance). Therefore, since you can only have one primary question, (if you doubt this, read the definition of “primary”) you must choose wisely.

Is this the BEST use of my time?

Is this moving me toward my goal? ✓

So, how do you break this bad habit? Well, awareness is a good start. Understand that efficiency is really only a concern for a fully developed system or organization (I’ll be saying more about this in a future article). So if you are starting, then you must absolutely obsess about being effective. Trying to be efficient is just an excuse to keep yourself from taking action. The second thing you must do is stop trying to be BOTH efficient and effective. I know it seems innocent enough (which is precisely why it’s dangerous), but as I outlined above, efficiency and effectiveness are actually pulling you in two different directions. You must get off the fence and decide.

Second, let go of your ego. The default setting of the world is, “waste is bad.” God forbid you were to spend your time or resources doing something that didn’t pan out. I think it’s a fair estimate to say that for every 100 units of effort you should expect roughly 10 units of result. So, that’s about 90 units of waste right there. And this is being generous. Don’t listen to the 99.9% of the people who have convinced themselves to play it safe. Follow the 1% who are brave enough to break a few eggs and have them land on their face.

“Bang for the buck” it not what you are looking for when it comes to achieving your goals. What you are looking for is BANG. This is because the reality of all noble pursuits is that you will always put in 100 times the effort than you think you’ll need to. That’s exactly why so few people succeed. They’ll spend all of their time looking for a short cut, looking for a way to only put in what they’re getting out. They view their place in the world as a series of transactions. Give and take. Tit for tat. They are always guarded to make sure they don’t end up with the short end of the stick. The reality is that you want to be successful you have to love the short end of the stick.

The true masters will tell you that this ratio is perfectly acceptable and will be more than you ever need to achieve everything that you want.