Fragile Effectiveness

Fragile Effectiveness

Creativity springs eternal – managers are adapting rapidly and getting things done. In our discussions with executives, many, in fact, are finding themselves more efficient. This is great.

We hear daily about innovative approaches to meetings, management and even basic tasks. Tools like video conferencing, shared online white boards, and collaboration platforms are being used, adapted and pushed beyond their “design” uses. Successfully. Approaches that were once “nice” have become mandatory.

Is it, however, permanent? Does it portend sustainable improvements for these managers and leaders? For many of these men and women, they are facing chaos like never before in their careers. Many are doing more than merely getting by. We sense feelings of exhilaration and accomplishment from executives overcoming massive odds to drive their businesses forward.

I think about a comment from Buckminster Fuller many decades ago:

If you’re on a sinking ship, a wooden piano top floating by might be a great way to save yourself; if, however, you were starting a company to make life preservers, you wouldn’t start by cutting out pieces of wood shaped like piano tops. [paraphrased from Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth]

Managers should begin now to reflect on the longer-term implications of their innovations and improvements. There are likely tradeoffs, like with a piano-top life preserver, that are more than acceptable today, but could lead to trouble if overused in the future.

One senior manager we know has been amazed at how he has adapted his managerial approach while working with his team remotely. He’s avoided a planned 3-week trip to Asia this month while actually having his teams ahead of schedule for each one of their major commitments. He remarked at having learned that his own efficiency is dramatically higher when he doesn’t “meddle” with his teams. He has a natural inclination to dive down into details during and after face-to-face meetings. He likes it, and is good at it. Now he stays above the fray and manages.

Many other executives we know tell similar stories about their own trial-and-error learning.

As I reflect on this, I hearken back to one of the first consulting frameworks I was taught back in 1985: Efficiency vs. Effectiveness.

Efficiency = Doing things right; maximizing output given input

Effectiveness = Doing the right things; leverage, focusing where it matters

Most executives strike the Efficiency-Effectiveness balance intuitively based on many years’ experience. Today, those same executives are being forced to change both their approaches and the balance that they strike between the two.

While some new approaches can drive improvement in both factors, the world is not a happy place with so-called win-win solutions at every turn (wink-wink?). Many approaches bring, for example, greater Efficiency while compromising Effectiveness.

For a simple example, consider railroads versus lorries as freight delivery modes. The cost-per-ton of freight delivered by rail is dramatically lower than that by lorry. As long as the starting point and delivery point lie on a rail line.

Likewise, my friend’s managerial Efficiency improvements are both impressive and critical to the situation he faces today. Which of these changes ought he to incorporate permanently? Which should he adopt in part? Which were short-term piano tops, to be abandoned over the coming months? Oh, and to what extent is his current success “adrenaline fuelled,” a variation of the Hawthorne Effect?

Managers and leaders will not emerge from 2020 unchanged. With reflection and sober thought, they should find themselves noticeably better in 2021. That reflection will help them to identify the core elements of their piano tops that should inform life-preserver design (float on water, solid, able to grasp/hold, relatively stable in roiling seas).