Business today is riddled with paradoxes and tensions. We solve one thing, master one skill, and before we know it, the next conundrum trundles along.
One of the ultimate paradoxes is how to achieve healthy levels of efficiency without heavy sacrifice. In an environment of decreasing budgets and increasing expectations, the pressure to do more with less is at peak levels. And while business at large has moved away from organisational models that paint efficiency as the ultimate end goal, the general pursuit of increased productivity, and the recognition of efficiency as a contributor to success, persists.
The quest for efficiency remains pertinent for a number of reasons. Technology and the promise of automation are big drivers. There’s a sense that in 2018 (almost 2019!), surrounded by ground-breaking, mind-bending, life-changing tech, things must be easier, quicker and cheaper than they have been. We half expect efficiency to be a by-product of advancing technologies. Remember Keynes’ prediction that we would be working a 15-hour week by now? We download tools, rewrite processes and restructure teams. The promise looms large.
Additionally, we’re playing ball in hyper-competitive markets, where disruption is a given—usually driven by gross, industry-wide inefficiencies—and new players spin up daily. Maintaining a competitive advantage is both more difficult and more necessary than ever. And while efficiency may no longer be the end goal, it certainly offers an edge. Efficiency is synonymous with higher productivity, which for many, is synonymous with value, meaning it remains an important factor in daily dealings.
But despite great strides in recognising efficiency as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself, we’re still focusing on a narrow view. We drill in on the commercial angle, undertaking ‘scientific’ cost-reduction exercises, attempting to do things faster or cheaper than everyone else, with little consideration for long-term impact. Narrow quick fixes might solve one riddle but can have unexpected and hard to predict ripple effects—product quality, customer experience, team health (mental and physical), culture and brand perception can all suffer. Durable efficiency is more than being the fastest or the cheapest or both.
There are a number of levers you can pull across your entire business which unlock a healthier, broader type of efficiency, one that creates valuable gains beyond monetary. Work smarter, not harder or faster or cheaper. Consider how you might do more with what you have across different types of resource.
Lever No. 1: People
Your people are your most valuable resource, but are highly individual when it comes to maximising productivity.
Think about when you’re at your best. Now ask the person next to you when they’re at theirs. It’s likely you’ll differ in your responses. The mix that achieves peak productivity is highly variable, and forcing people to behave in a ‘one size fits all’ manner is merely breeding another form of presenteeism—employees who show up but aren’t really showing up.
Allowing people to work in ways that best suits their rhythms will allow them to do more with their time, and I know I’m not alone in my experience of ‘an hour remote is worth eight in the office’. I’ve seen people flourish when given the latitude to work how it best suits them (myself included!), with both output and overall attitude stepping up a notch. Rather than a commercial transaction, it’s one based on trust, with efficiency an important by-product.
Lever No. 2: Product
When it comes to your output, focus on what you’re good at...
Knowing what you’re good at and therefore what to focus on is easier said than done, but it follows that if you’re good at something, then you’re generally good at doing that something too. You know what to do, how to do it, and don’t spin your wheels trying to figure it out. This generally equates to more—and higher quality—output with less effort. When an individual or collective is good at something, patterns and routines emerge (note: not formulae or doctrines), which help drive work through at pace without sacrificing quality.
It seems almost effortless and intuitive. It’s not just individuals who can get into ‘the zone’ or experience a sense of ‘flow’. Businesses can too. You feel it: the team is motivated, working harmoniously, and generating high-quality output due to a synchronicity between challenge and skills. While not every response to brief will elicit ‘flow’, and trying new things is important to stay relevant and to grow, equally, your entire book of work shouldn’t be one continual learning curve, nor should you spend excessive time on tasks that simply aren’t a core strength. Focus on what you’re good at and efficiencies will follow.
Lever No. 3: Partners
… and choose smart partners for the rest.
But what about the other services that are bedmates with your centre of gravity, which you know aren’t your strong point? It’s tempting to say yes to every request and figure it out later, but it’s grossly inefficient. Taking focus away from what you do best and trying to do everything okaaaaaay is obviously not a winning long-term move, and is why many agencies (and businesses generally) have struggled over the past decade.
Given the fragmentation and proliferation of devices and channels and technologies, is it really possible to be ‘end-to-end’ or ‘full spectrum’ for anything other than foundational services? Can you be both generalist and specialist effectively? Rather than trying to do it all ourselves, it’s about adopting a nodal approach.
That proliferation of devices and channels and technologies has resulted in a plethora of specialist businesses that have picked one to focus on, and are exceptionally good at it. Partner with them. Learn through working closely with someone whose core business is a bedfellow of your own. Sure, it may shift some of your revenue, but it also neutralises the commercial impact of inefficiencies that naturally stem from focusing on the wrong things. There’s a great article from strategist Matt Kendall on why the agency of the future is not an agency—it’s all about nodes, networks and smart partnering.
In short, our focus needs to broaden when it comes to efficiency. We need to recognise the range of resource levers we can pull, acknowledge that a narrow view might fix some things but will likely break others, and shift the conversation from fastest and cheapest to smartest and most durable.
Claire Van Heyningen is managing director of Mirum Australia