Efficiency Vs. Resiliency: Who Won The Bout?

Our obsession with efficiency and fixation on productivity has brutally undermined the capacity to prevent, deal with and bounce back from a pandemic. It's time to rebalance.

If you’re reading this, you already know the answer to the question, “Who won the bout?”  For the past century, Efficiency has been kicking Resiliency’s butt all over the ring. But in our current intermission, the underdog is stacking a renewed psychological strength.

Efficiency has always been equated with progress especially when things were more predictable and static. But we live in a much different world today.

Restaurants scurry to find food that travels well. Gyms move online to bring health to the home. And companies of all shapes and sizes throw out their rulebooks to reinvent how, and even why, they do business. Resiliency lets us tackle challenges, prevent disruptions and bounce back in the face of adversity. It’s the muscle we must be training and flexing to intimidate efficiency in the ring.

While efficiency and resilience may be at odds with one another right now, it’s worth recalling how one became so dominant over the other.

Pelotons and Productivity

With the industrial revolution of the18th century attitudes of efficiency were baked like layers of lasagna into our organizations. Cooked further by Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the division of labor meant breaking work down into the smallest, most mundane activities so as to produce more widgets faster and eliminate all waste in the production process. No doubt Henry Ford chose black for the Model T Classic simply because this color dried the fastest and would trim production time.

The side effect was that individual control over the techniques and quantity of personal production began to fade with the rise of automation. The race against the machines began. If you worked in agriculture or crafts, you might advance upward in society. Otherwise, you were aware that your job was expendable and soon to be performed by a machine. This is indeed the predicament in which many of today’s workers find themselves.

When Frederick Winslow Taylor, the first management consultant, snagged the baton from Smith, the batching of work found its soulmate in a new management practice. Taylorism began with, “How many tonnes of pig iron bars can a worker load onto a railcar in one working day?” Its “scientific management” involved managers closely controlling workers with the objective of producing more, faster. And while the practice has afforded us many of the luxuries we take for granted today, it left an outright mess in its wake.

Managers began ruling by command and control.

Laborers were reduced to cogs in the machine.

Work became enamored with predictability, reliability, and performance.

Corporate mottos were to grow bigger, not better.

A competitive edge meant doing whatever necessary even at the peril of people and our planet.

The meaning of work veered far away from internal motivations in search of external rewards

Efficiency masked as busyness became a downright bragging right.

And more than a century later we were still spinning our wheels on our souped-up hedonic Peloton bikes.

Then Covid-19 arrived on the scene.

First, we scrambled to make sense of things. We bought masks, gloves and toilet paper (if we could find them). We searched for new ways to make meaning. We planted. We protested. We discerned who and what matters most. And we mourned the old ways of being and doing.

Myth Busting

The pandemic has not only demonstrated overnight that a lot of great work can often be done from anywhere—but that being adaptive is more important than being productive.

In modeling our workplaces on the thesis that people are inherently lazy and spurred solely by dangling carrots, we turned a myth into a reality. We removed the soul from the organization and replaced it with ego.

Intuitively we know that our own health and the wellbeing of our loved ones trumps clocking more hours on the job. Overnight, learning how to fluidly blend work and life has become the skill du jour.

We can see clearly that resiliency is the trait we must cultivate the most.

Ensuring “slack” in the system to deal with unexpected events runs antithesis to the mandate for efficiency. Our efficiency obsession has stifled our ability to navigate change. Amongst other factors, a fixation on productivity has brutally undermined the capacity to prevent, deal with and bounce back from a pandemic.

While no one questions the validity of strategic petroleum reserves, where is the comparable for masks and ventilators?

The Search for Equilibrium

During the Reagan–Thatcher revolution of the 1980s, the horizon of our shared future began to fade. We entered the age of individualism, and our perceived needs and ego-driven wants reigned supreme.

And we’re still spinning in the aftermath of this special blend of laissez-faire capitalism that jacked up the economy. The 2008 financial crisis presented an opportunity to course-correct that we squandered. It only fueled a further divide in the distribution of power, wealth and opportunity.

The impulse for companies to scale fast and break things has shoved antitrust enforcement to the wayside. These regulations laws were designed to keep a balance between efficiency and resilience. As such we now have one CEO worth more than the top 3 European football teams, the NFL, Ferrari, Paramount Pictures and ViacomCBS—combined.

“An excessive focus on efficiency can produce startlingly negative effects, to the extent that superefficient businesses create the potential for social disorder,” explains Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto.

Now is the time to rebalance efficiency and resiliency.

Our public institutions, organizations, personal and professional operating systems need one thing more than anything else: the cunning capacity to adapt. Pioneering practices, whether that be a shorter workweek or a universal basic income, are finally catering to the human spirit.

We had to be pushed out of the ring first. Now we can rebuild better and create a more stable and equitable economy. Getting thrashed and thrown around has provided us with a new perspective.

Let’s first tighten the strings on our gloves. Then let’s get back in the ring, and start swinging.

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