LinkedIn article by Tim Williams
Published January 3, 2019

“Brewed inefficiently since 1984” proclaims the Twitter page of Samuel Adams beer. This classic Boston beer brand allows extra time for its hops to fully mature in order to craft its full-flavored lager. Sam Adams could have a more “efficient” brewing process, but it would result in a much less satisfying product.

An efficiency expert visiting an Apple store might reasonably conclude that Apple could pack in a lot more products into a lot less space — these spacious stores are famously sparse. But this “inefficient” use of space produces the highest sales per square foot of any retailer in the world. 

The webpage that greets visitors to is famously uneconomic: a simple search bar surrounded by a sea of unoccupied white space. It’s an inefficient use of valuable online real estate that is incredibly effective at doing its job. 

The end, not the means

The goal of any product, service or brand is to be effective, not efficient. This is especially true in professional services, where clients are buying the end (business results), not the means.

Advertising legend Rory Sutherland believes that most of today's marketing people have adopted an ultra-rational Newtonian view of the world, fueled largely by the impact of digital and data science. But, Sutherland warns, we must resist the idea that marketing is more science than art. The most effective marketing programs are not the result of efficient problem solving; they are born of flashes of insight and creativity.

Sutherland imagines a world in which companies deliver customer service based on a paradigm of effectiveness instead of efficiency. It might be “efficient” to subject customers to a self-directed phone tree and a series of recorded messages, but it rarely produces the desired effect of a deeply satisfied patron. 

Optimize your effectiveness, not your time

Creativity, said the iconic Bill Bernbach, is the most powerful force in business. It has the potential to transform the fortunes of a company or brand. But creativity is not a process that can be subjected to the standards of ISO 9000. The outstanding creative problem solvers in our business might well have black belts in karate, but not in Six Sigma.

In professional services, our goal is not “time optimization,” but rather effectiveness optimization. As the late great Stephen Covey taught, you can be efficient with things, but not with people. Imagine trying to foster an “efficient” marriage.

Improving a workflow system might involve a great deal of logic — identifying unnecessary steps, removing duplication of effort, and streamlining how information is gathered and shared. And there’s no question most professional firms could benefit from better workflow management. But the steps and skills involved in effective project management don’t directly apply to creative problem solving, where we are relying instead on perspective, experience, and expertise. 

Unrestrained creativity?

This is not to wish for a world without process, systems or deadlines. Professional firms will be eternally pressured to deliver work faster. Deadlines aren’t an inherent deterrent to creativity. To the contrary, a time limit can sometimes inspire originality. The movie Amadeus portrays how the prolific Mozart was under perpetual pressure to deliver compositions in time for scheduled performances. Deadlines, along with other limitations that come with every assignment, constitute a “beautiful constraint” that can fuel imaginative and unconventional approaches and solutions. 

The celebrated design and innovation firm IDEO actively embraces constraints and works with their clients early in the design process to identify and articulate the constraints of an assignment. IDEO designer Sina Mossayeb likens the effect of constraints with the act of flying a kite. A kite flies because of pressure dynamics in the air, but the string — the constraint — is what facilities that condition. Cut the string and the kite doesn’t fly higher — it crashes. 

When working on an important assignment, allowing yourself to be “inefficient” for a while is often what produces the solution. Says Mossayeb, “Letting go of focus for a period of time allows other images and ideas to enter. Often, only then does the breakthrough concept emerge.” Innovative problem solving requires inspiration, and lightbulb moments can’t be planned, scheduled and managed in 6-minute increments on a timesheet. 

Was Einstein efficient?

Was Albert Einstein efficient? What about Pablo Picasso? These are irrelevant questions, because the nature of knowledge work — including both art and science — has to do with effectiveness, not efficiency.  

While conducting a tour through one of the original Ford factories, Henry Fordresponded to a question about a highly compensated employee who appeared to be in his office daydreaming by explaining “Why do I pay $50,000 to that man over there with his feet up on his desk? Because a few years ago he came up with something that saved our company two million dollars, and when he had that idea his feet were exactly where they are now.”