When Efficiency is the Enemy of Innovation

broken idea
This post originally appeared on the Mindjet blog on September 19, 2013.

For all the talk these days of openness, transparency, and company-wide innovation as critical competitive advantages, most of it remains just that – talk. We talk about the death of hierarchy and the rise of social business. About bottom-up innovation and the meritocracy of ideas. About the newly empowered, constantly connected knowledge worker. About the importance – nay, the necessity – of fostering meaningful relationships between brands and consumers.

Yet for all our well-meaning lip service to the twin utopian idols of Social Business and Innovation, these sad, stubborn facts remain:

  1. Fewer than 1 in 5 CEOs believe their investments in innovation are paying off, even though 93 percent said innovation is critical to their organization’s long-term success.
  2. 7 out of 10 American workers have emotionally checked out of their jobs.

A Well-Known Problem, Poorly Understood

The dismal state of employee engagement and the discouraging results of innovation investment are two sides of the same coin. After all, numerous studies show that business innovation and employee engagement go hand-in-hand. The strange thing is that everyone already knows this – CEOs, HR, and middle managers all already understand the importance of an engaged, empowered workforce… in theory.

In practice, however, most organizations continue to struggle. I could write volumes about departmental silos, conflicting priorities, restrictive top-down hierarchies, inflexible work environments, and many other common sources of employee misery. But today I want to touch on another culprit, that sacred cow of the C-suite: capital ‘E’ Efficiency.

Embracing (the Right Kind of) Inefficiency

But what, you ask, could be wrong with efficiency? After all, don’t all of the problems listed above contribute to inefficiencies that make our jobs harder, more stressful, and less engaging? Absolutely. The wrong kinds of inefficiency – the ones that get in the way of doing great work, like unnecessary bureaucracy and hierarchy – can make our lives miserable.

But the right kinds of inefficiency – the ones that invite us to bump up against the prejudices, assumptions, and oversights hidden in the way we do business – can be positively magical. Jason Fried recently wrote with great eloquence about doing things that don’t scale, and the valuable lessons and yes, innovations, that came from embracing inefficiency. He writes:

Automation can… lead to myopia. And premature-automation can lead to blindness. When you take human interaction out of a system, you’re removing key opportunities to see what really happens along the way. You miss stories, experiences, and struggles – and that’s often where the real insights are hiding.

And that’s the real lesson. Today’s business leaders are so obsessed with efficiency that they’ve left little room in their organizations for humanity. For years now, employees have been asked to wring a little more productivity, a little more efficiency out of dwindling staff, longer hours, and lower budgets. Is it any surprise that these same employees are also disengaged and failing to innovate?

To Be Human Is to Be Inefficient

The appeal of efficiency is its promise of simplicity – strip away everything superfluous, and what remains is a seamless, simple, elegant solution (in theory). Inefficiency, on the other hand, is inherently messy and inelegant. It forces you to recognize that there isn’t always a simple answer, which can be an uncomfortable realization.

But I’ve got news for you: the biggest problems in business and in the world today don’t have simple answers. They are as complicated, irrational, and terribly inefficient as the humans who caused them, and solving them will require the resources of consumers, governments, and companies all working together – open innovation (a necessarily inefficient process) at its finest.

To be human is to be inefficient. And that’s wonderful — because when we open ourselves to the crazy, sexy, inefficient potential lurking inside the human brain, we can accomplish great things.

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One Response to When Efficiency is the Enemy of Innovation

  1. Rob Joyce 09/26/2013 at #

    In my conversations about design, I often refer to what I call the “Sholes Effect” which I define as “The beneficial result of planned inefficiency. Named for the creator of the QWERTY keyboard, which was designed to slow typing speed and thereby avoid jammed typebars.”

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