Are You Too Efficient to Innovate? It sounds like a crazy question, but optimization doesn't always lead to inspiration.
We're all looking for an edge. To find it, we often become obsessed with efficiency — searching for ways to move faster and produce more.
But is it possible to be too efficient? What if, paradoxically, our pursuit of efficiency makes us less efficient?
That's a not-so-crazy idea I heard recently from Edward Tenner, a distinguished scholar at the Smithsonian Institution and the author of a book called The Efficiency Paradox. He is not opposed to efficiency — after all, there's nothing productive about being sloppy and disorganized. But he does offer caution to those who glorify it.
"Innovation very seldom can be done efficiently," he tells me. "There are always lots of mistakes involved. So if you have software or any other arrangement that optimizes things too soon, you might be passing up the biggest opportunity."
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By way of example, he offers Harry Potter. Many publishers rejected the book when J.K. Rowling first pitched it, very likely because it conflicted with the publishers' data about what kids like. The story was unusually long and set in an old-fashioned place — who wants that?! But finally, the founder of a small British publisher gave the first chapter to his then-8-year-old daughter. She loved it, so that was that.
In short, the inefficient amusement of a child beat the efficient data-driven decisions of major publishers. This should be a lesson to us all, Tenner says — because it is both a trap to avoid and an opportunity to explore.
"In pure efficiency and brute power, the giant companies will always have an advantage," he says. "But entrepreneurs can stand out by combining the right technology with the human touch, and the ability to relate to people in a way that really big organizations can't."
Tenner's message can apply in big and broad ways to companies that maximize efficiency at the expense of innovation. After all, I bet Blockbuster ran very efficient stores while a young Netflix inefficiently studied what modern entertainment fans wanted. But as Tenner told me all this, I realized that the principle applies in personal ways too — and how, in fact, I might be teetering into my own efficiency paradox.
I am an extrovert, and I attribute much of my success to my ability to connect with others and translate their ideas to the masses. But as my work became busier, more people were asking me for meetings and calls — and I was having less time for any of them. For a while, I solved this with a system I called the "arbitrary yes" — it means saying yes, completely arbitrarily, to the occasional meeting with a stranger. Most of these went nowhere, but a few produced great ideas, connections, and even friends. The beauty of inefficiency!
Then life got too busy for even that. I reduced the number of calls and meetings I took even with people I know. I recently brought on an assistant to help me manage everything, and he found ways for me to be even more efficient. In one case, he offered to reply to all my social media DMs as if it were me. This would save me more time, he said, which was tempting: I have long replied to everyone myself, and it takes a lot of brain space.
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But then I realized, No, I cannot hand that off! It might be efficient, but it would also cut off a valuable channel for feedback. So I started redrawing some lines. I'm holding on to all my social media. I'm meeting more interesting people. When I go to an event, I linger longer to chat. And I'm exploring some crazy ideas that may not go anywhere — while reminding myself that the failures are not wasted time.
There is no perfect balance to this, but I encourage you to explore it yourself. What part of your work or life has become too efficient? What solution has caused another problem? There is no efficient way to answer these questions — but I guess that's the point.