There’s no shortage of advice out there for making you more productive, and plenty of it works. But the emphasis on productivity has gone too far, and it’s holding back not just innovation but our own careers, too.
In the 1980s, Japanese companies seemed unstoppable. They had developed fantastic improvements in productivity that helped them churn out products faster, more cheaply, and to higher standards. Yet after a decade of irresistible global domination, the tide started to turn for Japan.
By the 90s, Japan had entered a recession that lasted more than a decade, with zero growth, rising unemployment, and deflation. Other countries around the world had copied the best practices of Japanese manufacturing and destroyed Japan’s competitive advantage.
Productivity can provide important advantages over competitors, which can increase profitability, but it will rarely keep you ahead in the long term. Investments in new technologies can increase productivity, but best practices spread quickly, and the immediate gains in output are soon shared by competitors, so no competitive advantage is gained, meaning no increased profit.
In fact, what tends to happen is that as all competitors get ever more productive, the investment cost in making further gains gets larger, and this eats into profits. It becomes an arms race in which everyone loses.
As individuals, our productivity has increased enormously with the arrival of each of the following: the computer, the laptop, the mobile phone, the Internet, the smartphone, and the cloud. Each of these raised performance levels by allowing
us to produce more.
This has impacted our careers in three ways. First, we are all able to produce a lot more. So we do. This creates an ever-increasing amount of work for us all to do. Second, as we all use the same technology, our ability to differentiate ourselves on the basis of our productivity gets harder and harder. Finally, any further increases we want to make in our productivity in the hope of achieving ever-smaller advantages over our competition come at an increasingly large cost.
In the Industrial Age, the primary goal was production. Given a set level of quality, the more you could produce, the better. As time passed and production processes improved, managers started to realize the thing that was slowing output the most was the human factor. They needed their people to work harder and more efficiently.
Enter Frederick Winslow Taylor and his approach called “scientific management.” Taylor analyzed employee activity with time-and-motion studies to find out where efficiencies could be made. Ever since then, the core focus of most management teams has been to get their people to produce more.
In a curious parallel to the Industrial Age, a recent study has looked at what’s holding back the effectiveness of computer systems today. A research group at Carnegie Mellon University claims that the limiting factor for computers today isn’t the processor speed or memory size or network capacity, it’s the human factor again. We are the limiting factor to progress. But this time, it isn’t our efficiency or hard work that’s slowing advancement, it’s our (lack of) ability to focus and think.
In our mania to squeeze ever more efficiency out of the workforce, ever more connectedness, ever more output, we have neglected the fact that our brains are not machines. In doing more and more, we are thinking less and less. Which is curious because in an information age, it’s our cognitive abilities that matter—the collective intellect, imagination, and problem-solving capability of our people.
In other words, the very capability that our businesses need to cultivate is being damaged, day by day, by “more.” Floundering under the avalanche of corporate communication and demand, our poor brains struggle to do anything more than flit from micro-task to micro-task. We are productive but dumb; our battered and distracted attentional systems are slowing the entire system, and eroding corporate progress.
From an individual perspective, we see that management wants productivity, and so realize that the more productive we are, the more valuable we are. So we all play the “More” game. The rules are simple: The people who produce the most (and are seen to be producing a lot) win. You work hard, you work long, and your bosses notice you seem to be more motivated than your colleagues. Management starts giving you more to do—more work and more responsibility.
The “More” game can still work. If you are working with people who are much less hardworking than you, your extra efforts and productivity will be noticed and rewarded. Typically though, this only happens at the very start of our careers. At some point, it stops working.
Then we get to a point where we are no longer competing against the unmotivated; we find our fellow workers are also career-minded and playing the “More” game too! That’s when the arms race starts, with email response time, working hours, and the sheer quantity of stuff produced being the criteria for success.
When the “More” game doesn’t bring results, we redouble our efforts trying to squeeze ever more activity, ever more output, and ever more responsiveness out of our tired brains. The quality of our thinking drops, our imagination fades, and our energy dwindles.
And ever so slowly, we fade into the background.
This article is adapted from Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much and is reprinted with permission.