My confidence in the "thought leader" blog posts at LinkedIn is waning. First, there was the ridiculous Inge Geerdens post on being reluctant to hire forty-something professionals. And last month, Ron Baker had written a "Big Idea for 2013", which to me actually seems quite small.
The Not So Big Idea
The "Big Idea" urged readers to forgo any efforts working on efficiency and put all their efforts into effectiveness. Ron claimed that efforts focused on efficiency were inherently reductive in nature, and as such, had less value than efforts focusing on effectiveness. Ergo, screw efficiency and go full bore into effectiveness.
Being such an ardent believer in the UX discipline, which is rooted in effectiveness, and an on the record critic of reductive practices in corporate America, I wanted to like it. For some reason I could not describe, I just could not bring myself to liking the post and it took me about a month to fully explain why. Now that I'm ready, I'll go ahead and be a little provocative: Ron Baker has it all wrong, and I can prove it.
Idea #1 : Big Ideas Need to Be Inclusive
In 2013, in order for an idea to be "big", it must be inclusive. How can anyone in the thought leader and speaking engagement business go around trashing the thinking styles of more than 50% of the population? When looking at similar, but more holistic, ideas from Patricia Aburdene (author of Megatrends 2010), Dan Pink (author of the classic Whole New Mind) and most recently Simon Sinek (author of Start with Why) the contrast becomes clear.
Aburdene and Pink do not denigrate the approach of anyone else as being "less than" or without value, they only point to the fact that the pendulum, as a matter of societal need, has swung too far to the side of the quantitatively biased and that, in the future, the qualitatively minded people, capable of finding meaning beyond numbers and wisdom beyond intelligence, will have a greater seat at the table then they do right now.
Sinek on the other hand does not even mention the two sides at all. He only speaks to the idea that each message has a place. If the messages are properly ordered, others will be inspired to rally or buy-in to a cause or a brand. No matter if it is an author, a public speaker or, most evidently in our current times a politician, the narrative of division is not a "Big" idea. Narratives of division and false dichotomies are, in fact, small ideas and are from last century.
Idea #2 : Sloth Does Not Inspire Anyone (Except the Lazy)
Baker's article reminds me of a favorite quote from another great mind; Homer Simpson. Homer once opined "Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It's what separates us from the animals... except the weasel". When I try to imagine how someone could take Baker's "paean to wastefulness" approach and make it real in their industry, I'm perplexed by the idea that someone could rationally take this point of view in today's society. Praising sloth does not lead to superior anything. It only leads to half-assed everything.
In the energy industry the "screw efficiency approach" leads to ridiculously high energy prices and global chaos. In the consumer electronics industry it leads to low battery life, bigger product form factors, and higher cost products. And unlike Apple, the higher cost will not be related to the premium nature of the product, but rather to the wasteful approach of "effectiveness at all costs". In the software and web industries, you get bloated inefficient code that makes users irate and lowers conversions.
Apple is one of the best counter examples to Baker's idea. On the surface, Apple appears to be all about effectiveness, but an educated analyst knows this to be simplistic. Apple is about elegance and excellence in all things they engage in -- because Apple is familiar with an actual "big idea": How you do anything is how you do everything! You don't get greatness by saying "it's OK if we are inefficient in our processes and development cycles". You get greatness by saying "we will be great at everything we do, even when we fail". One of Steve Jobs' most memorable anecdotes was how his dad made him paint the back side of the fence that nobody would ever possibly see only because Jobs would know it was painted.
Idea #3 : Efficiency IS a Competitive Advantage
Try telling FedEx that efficiency is not a competitive advantage. Try telling Wal-mart that efficiency is not a competitive advantage. Try telling McDonald's that efficiency is not a competitive advantage. Try telling Amazon that efficiency is not a competitive advantage. Try telling SouthWest Airlines that efficiency is not a competitive advantage. Try telling any global company that efficiency is not a competitive advantage and see how far that gets you.
I know my list was pedantic and repetitive. Once I thought of one highly successful company that competes primarily, and sometimes approaching exclusively, on efficiency in a major aspect of their business, the examples just kept coming. Of course effectiveness is clearly required in each of the above cases as well, and that is the point. Neither efficiency nor effectiveness has any value when the other is not present.
Just as effectiveness allows efficiency to have a place, efficiency is what allows effectiveness to happen -- the paradox of our universe is that for every concept that has a significant truth, there exists an exact opposite concept that is also true. The reconciliation of these seemingly mutually exclusive concepts is the thought process that leads us to higher ground where greater vision and progress are possible. The trick to being truly competitive in both the short and long run is to know not only when to focus on efficiency vs effectiveness, but also to build the ability to switch focus when needed.
Beware the False Choice
Greatness comes when you realize the question of "efficient or effective" is a false choice. To be great, you must think in terms of "effective and efficient" and build an organizational culture that is capable of switching tactics, because, for companies, being "built to change" is a prerequisite to being "built to last".
Editor's Note: He pointed it out in the beginning, but in case you missed it, check out Stephen's view: Earth to Inge: Your Employees Don't Need You!