Reducing work sounds like a good idea. Efficiency is good. Why is it hard?

If the work you're reducing is your own work, then you run into a private conflict of interest. The ultimate expression of efficiency would be to put yourself out of a job. Everything, however minor, that means eliminating work triggers resistance. At the same time as incrementally making ourselves redundant, we're devaluing work previously considered valuable. This makes us feel at risk of being less valued, and opens us to increased productivity expectations in the same kind of task that can now be done more efficiently: being more efficient is likely to increase pressure and stress.

Worse, if a particular kind of work is made trivial or eliminated, we are opening ourselves to the freed-up time, energy, and resources being used on some other unknown task. Unknowns are bad: the work could be worse in many different ways, and will require change of behaviour, effort to learn new things, and a period of reduced effectiveness and recognition compared to previously mastered functionality. All of these are things we want to avoid.

So for an employee, resisting efficiency is a rational posture.

pressure doesn't help

To combat this, businesses create structures of pressure and incentives that amount to more negatives and stress. "Don't do that", "follow these rules", "do it faster", "do it cheaper". The idea is that if the individual is not going to improve things, they have to be made to improve. But the rational reaction of someone subjected to this kind of pressure is to decontextualise the original task, and reframe the task as adherence to rules and satisfying of targets. The same rational behaviour re-emerges of trying to maintain a comfortable equilibrium without risking doing better at hitting these targets.

This is the vicious circle of a short-sighted efficiency trap. Don't underperform and get into trouble, but don't exceed expectations too much otherwise next time the expectations will be higher. The same effect can occur with anything where the achievement of a certain goal without context simply feeds into a new more pressured goal. For example, a common mis-application of Kaizen when imported from Toyota and applied short-sightedly in western manufacturing was to "continuously improve" infinitely by increasing production and efficiency targets, leading to personal and system stresses, and corner-cutting, and ultimately a reduction in quality and efficiency.

target chasing

This trap can be found anywhere a KPI is used as a focus of work activities, that is, misused since the literal meaning of KPI is that it is one indicator of performance, not the performance in itself. When "hitting target" means raising the bar without reference to the context of the system being measured, you are in a trap where rational human incentives are to act conservatively and aim to do the minimum required to keep equilibrium.

KPI-based performance pressure can, at best, hope for avoiding reduction in quality or productivity, rather than gains. In a competitive business environment where radical improvements and innovation are required just to survive, let alone to get ahead, if everyone behaves conservatively, merely balancing performance to avoid encouraging raising of the bar, the overall performance of the organisation going to be just as underwhelming.

elevate via "why"

The key to escaping the efficiency trap is to elevate the view of the task to a higher level and gain context, and to do this, simply ask why you are doing that task.

I am quite fond of pointing out that the "Five Whys" are overkill when, in business, just asking one "why" is usually sufficient to challenge most kinds of ongoing activity and open them to change.

As soon as you ask why you are doing something and talk about a higher level reason for doing it, you open up the conversation to the inevitable fact that there are many different ways of doing it. It sounds very obvious, but at work it's relatively uncommon for us to look at a task and consider a range of methods to do it, some of them never tried before: we tend to reach for what we always do.

Although habit-prone we are more likely to exhibit creative solutions in the domain of our personal lives, simply because we know the higher context of what we are trying to achieve and nobody is trying to restrict us to a decontextualised task view. It is only through the looking glass at work that it is so common to be trapped in that opposite situation of not really knowing why you or other people are doing whatever they are doing.

context allows autonomy and mastery

The sense of safety in doing a simple task well and avoiding change is a pretty weak type of satisfaction: higher context means a more powerful set of motivations. It is well known that a sense of mastery is the biggest source motivation: if the mastery is moved up a level to apply to the reason why we are performing a task, then we immediately expand the definition of what it means to be efficient and productive.

By asking why we are doing a particular task, we reset our sense of mastery, productivity, self-worth and so on at a higher level which is immune to changes in the lower level techniques. For example if you understand that your job in a kitchen is to help produce a signature dish of kung pao chicken, you're less likely to be defensive if someone asks you to chop up the chicken more efficiently. In fact, even if your job right now is just the preparation of the meat, what will happen is that you look for ways to improve both the efficiency and the quality of the cutting up, because you know what it is for. That dish could never be improved by someone who only viewed their job as isolated cutting and didn't know what a good kung pao chicken was like.

good managers communicate context

On the most basic level this means that a manager who shares their own somewhat higher vantage point of system productivity, and puts tasks in that context, is more likely to get efficiency gains than if the context is not provided. Since a manager tends to know more than the people they are managing (if only because of hierarchical communication lines), transferring this understanding of context is a primary management job, but unfortunately one that is all too commonly neglected, probably just because it's human nature to find it hard to remember people don't know the things that you know (or rather it is hard to track and predict what people know and don't know: we're not telepathic).

The benefits of good management are particularly visible when individuals are encouraged to understand their role in a wider team, and how their team operates to deliver a combination of skills and additive productivity. While some view teamwork through a lens of personalities, culture, and getting along well, I prefer to think it is an easier and more universal job of planting the same vision in everyone's minds (we are here; we want to be in a future reality that looks like this; there's your gap) and let the natural rational incentives to cooperate take over.

Focusing people on team objectives and team success encourages them to move outside a narrow definition of performance where efficiency is a threat. Additionally, working in a team naturally encourages people to define their range of activities less narrowly, and by exploring a wider set of activities a person is less threatened by feeling that efficiency gains in their current task set will make them redundant.

context for products

Using "why" to elevate the context for work is a powerful technique that can take people who were previously in a self-defensive "job's worth" mentality and involve them in a positive challenge. Instead of avoiding or deleting things, people can create, and efficiencies arise because people naturally take the shortest path towards the situation they are trying to create. This is why the "Jobs To Be Done" approach works well in solution design and marketing: instead of starting from an introspective, decontextualised "how can we sell (more) X" task, we reframe our task as "what does this customer want or need", which in turn gives rise to a large number of possible solutions, which we can work on with the question "how can we make X easier to buy". That would not be possible if we never allowed ourselves to ask "why are we selling X? What is X for? Why did we create X in the first place?"

organisations don't want to make themselves redundant

Going back to the trap of rationally trying to avoid improvements because they reduce the value of current work and open us to new pressures and unknown new work, this can apply on a macro scale to an organisation. The Shirky Principle is that "institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution": it would be irrational for the organisation to break down its position of providing value, via efficiencies or innovation. But again, this trap can be escaped by elevating the context: what is our solution the solution to? If we know that, we can survive and thrive by solving that higher solution without being bound to the particular set of techniques which currently solve it. It is grimly obvious in retrospect, looking at victims of market disruption, to see where the one-why context elevation was not able to take effect for some reason: for example, Kodak acted as if people wanted to use film cameras, while in fact they wanted to take lots of pictures and share them - and film cameras stopped being the best way to do that.

Taking the analogy of the good manager, who encourages creativity in the team by working primarily on developing a shared understanding of the "why" instead of prescribing (or proscribing) techniques and activity scope, an organisation as a whole can benefit from being less prescriptive about what it does and how it does it, and focus instead on developing a compelling set of answers to "why". Organisations need to look at ways their prescriptive behaviour inhibits their ability to evolve and make leaps in productivity. Many of the standard ways of organising business are contrary to these principles of shared higher level context, such as standardised job descriptions, siloed departments and org charts, target chasing and fixed budgets, secretive strategy-making and distant management, and high pressure environments which provide little or no opportunity for research, experimentation, and free association. These inertial and restrictive structures themselves can be successfully challenged by asking "why" - for example, what is the purpose of a job title and a job description. I guarantee this leads to useful conversations... if you are allowed to have the conversation.

shared context across the organisation

While many organisations foster well-functioning teams, it's more rare to see an effort to raise the shared context across the whole organisation. Obviously this becomes harder to the point of unmanageability as the number of people involved scales up. Do we really want hundreds of entrepreneurs with new ideas every day? But perhaps the reason it sounds so difficult is because we are not familiar with a firm base of creative autonomy from the individual task level upwards to the local team and wider department. If this is lacking, it certainly would be chaotic to try to involve everybody in a bigger conversation. On the other hand, if people were more in the habit of working on things with higher context, it might lead to more discipline and focus since the useless, counterproductive, or over-optimising behaviours would be more obvious to spot and change.

However idealistic these views are, I do believe the initial steps are easy and the benefits quite quick to access for any organisation. Using existing structures all that is needed is to take sufficient time and the right people, and address a routine "vision and mission" setting exercise. Usually this is not done with sufficient time or the right people, so the attitude is rushed, cynical, and defensive and the results are cursory, vague, and undifferentiating.

A measure of a good vision and mission is whether it can be communicated easily and used to unlock directed creativity all the way down to the individual level. You want to give people a licence to evaluate themselves (and be evaluated) on the basis of higher levels of contribution to top-level objectives. That's the context - the why - which business leaders should elevate their thinking to, before setting themselves the task of an away day with flipchart and post-it notes to write up a new vision and mission.

change is not safe or fun

I'll end by saying that, since one "why" is usually quite radical enough thank-you-very-much for most organisations, formulating and implementing a new or clarified vision and mission by the above definition would amount to a huge transformation for most.

It's common to talk about "digital transformation" and muse on it being a difficult culture and human change procedure as much as technological, but really that is just stuck at the level of techniques and the transformation that is actually required - setting a valid purpose that people can get behind (or leave) - is far bigger and more challenging. Considering the disruption that kind of initiative would cause to established, complex, running systems, perhaps rational survival instinct trumps the desire for leaps in performance, and the organisation, like the organisation man, should just keep its head down, not stick its neck out!