Dangerously efficient

I have been thinking about how counter-productive it can be to be efficient.  Dangerous, in fact.

Yesterday morning I accidentally started brushing my teeth on the bottom row rather than starting on the top.  A glitch in the autopilot.  I was all over the place, a complete mess.  I noticed then that my morning regime is pretty fixed: teeth, hair, shave, moisturise (thanks Nat).  No real problem so far; little harm can be done at the bathroom sink (unless you’re one of those people who wet shaves).

Later in the morning I did some sprint training.  The four lampposts that I usually use for measuring my dash had been swallowed by the Moscow State Circus or something.  Bah.  Then I noticed there was the entire 99% of the rest of Clapham Common to use, and in fact I could use my own estimation rather than lampposts, and ignore my watch while I was at it, so I tried that.  It felt totally different; I felt slightly disorientated and sick at first actually, and had a strong urge to stop.  But afterwards it felt like a whole new exercise somehow.

Efficiency is highly valued in the industrial world.  Efficient people / machines do things right, and quickly.

But here’s a list of some instances, from micro to macro, where I see efficiency as a problem:

– I brush my teeth the same way each morning, so I miss the same bit each time.

– I exercise in the same way, fall into a pattern and lose all benefit, and start accumulating injuries.

– In school I learned the same standardised things as everyone else, and I emerged believing I was not creative.

– In work I perfected the processes I was required to master, and become a commodity in the eyes of my customer.  And bored stiff.

– I live the same lifestyle as everyone else, so we all consume the same efficiently-produced mass market products and exhaust the identical finite resources.

Efficiency would appear to be the enemy of diversity.  It is highly valued, because we have turned 99% of the world into an industrial monoculture, but it is ultimately no good for anyone, anywhere along the scale.

In the absence of diversity, every system will eventually fail.  I find this truth increasingly impossible to ignore.  As individuals, I believe we hold ourselves back and hugely limit our potential.  Collectively, we are having a lethal effect.

Instead of efficiency (doing things right), how about effectiveness (doing the right thing)?  I fancy drawing a graph to illustrate this point, using my career (or whatever it is now) as an example:

I try more to plump for effectiveness these days.  I’m still rubbish at it, but the general direction feels right.

Tiny new steps and experiments are probably the way to introduce effectiveness.  So I am definitely walking to the tube a different way today.  Who knows what I’ll discover…maybe I’ll make friends with the Gruffalo or something.

3 comments on “Dangerously efficient
  1. BLS says:

    Love this one. Made me think. Also have brushed my teeth the same way for all my life and dentist tells me off for that!

  2. hanry_m says:

    Hi Chris,

    I hugely enjoy reading your thoughts, and envy both your powers of a) writing things down and b) visualising them! I suck at both of those which is a bit of a handicap in my current job 🙂

    Efficiency is a weird one – wikipedia’s distinction from “effectiveness” aside the word gets a rough treatment. Every workplace is “realising efficiencies” and very often that actually means doing things less carefully, doing less of a thing or not doing a thing at all. Declining output, declining quality of output and/or declining motivation are usually the outcome, often in a terminal spiral.

    However, that is abusing the poor word. The reason that you followed those abusers in your treatment seems an obvious sacrifice on the altar of good narrative, but you left one example that to an engineer at least can not be passed up 🙂

    What is the objective of brushing your teeth? To clean them from food residue and the “bad” bacteria, and to strengthen the gums!
    Efficient toothbrushing therefore is the process of cleaning every accessible surface of tooth and gums sufficiently (to be defined – you’ll never get rid of 100% this or that, let’s just say “x”), yet none of it any more than that. Further, to do so with the least possible strokes in the shortest possible time, using the least possible amount of energy to do so.
    If however you “miss the same bit out each time” that is inefficient brushing of teeth, would you not agree?
    Similarly training regimes – cherchez l’objectif

    Routine seems to be the real danger in these examples that part of your post is about, and I agree that it is a risk factor (it is also a scaffold that can help some people to function but I *do* get carried away). Even an efficient routine can create risks and backfire.

    I am sorry, the test-engineer in me ran away with your humble blog post there… as I said, it would not have been such a fluid blog post if you’d had followed my prussian nitpicking.

    And anyway, the core of your statement holds – that even pure efficiency risks alienation if it is not felt to do “the right thing”, and certainly does not stimulate creativity and flexibility. It might however *allow* you to spend more time on finding new viewpoints. Whether it’s a good thing varies from person to person. Because…

    Diversity is essential. And we’re all different.

    To some people, brushing “inefficiently” for 15 minutes is great, because that is their most inspiring thinking-time. Others detest every minute of it because they can’t think while brushing.

    (which makes efficiency really hard to achieve when more than one person is involved… but enough!)

    You can tell why I hardly ever get things written down. Apologies for this!

    Oh, and it just so happened that a) I came here after reading this: http://www.thesfegotist.com/editorial/2012/march/14/short-lesson-perspective – talking about efficiency or not from the new tech age and b) after browsing through Gene Kranz’ fantastic “Failure is not an option” before returning it to the lender. Well worth the read. Routine, Efficiency, People… Warmly recommended. (You might like to read Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” first. Which I can lend you, Wombletown is not that far. But you might not want to read any of the above. Diversity – we love it! :0)


  3. Paolo says:

    Just my two cents. I think “Doing things right” does not mean being “effective”! You do things right because it is the right thing to do not because you will succeed or become effective. For example, you save a person’s life sacrificing your own life. Another example, a pharma company got bankrupt paying customers for damages because of the drug they produced that worsened the condition of patients or even killed patients. The point is, you can still be effective but doesn’t mean you are doing the right thing. Please be careful with that statement because it creates a misconception saying that as long as you are effective means you are doing the right thing. Doing the right thing is doing the right things even if you have to sacrifice your success and your dreams. Being effective is not synonymous to doing the right thing.

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